Coronavirus

Employers Confront the Coronavirus

Jan. 31, 2020
Advice is to take known precautions for the flu and keep an eye on the news.

Every day brings a fresh outbreak of headlines about the Coronavirus, each one scarier than the last. The fear is palpable and has resulted in the Chinese government taking extreme measures to quarantine entire cities while other countries like the United States keep a nervous eye on travelers arriving from Asia.

Concerns have been raised about how governments should respond while public fears continue to grow as the news seems to get worse each day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is cautioning against nonessential travel to China, while scientists are working as fast as they can to create an effective vaccine to deal with it.

Unfortunately, at this point little is known about the Coronavirus regarding its origins, how it is spread, and even less is known about how deadly it will turn out to be.

This leads to inevitable questions about how employers should react and what steps they should take in the face of fears that the virus may become more widespread in the U.S. Fortunately, we already have considerable experience dealing with the flu, which rears its ugly head every winter in its multifarious forms, and kills far more people each year than the Coronavirus has so far.

As of this writing, the Coronavirus is estimated to have caused the deaths of 210 people in China, and over 8,000 have been infected with it in more than a dozen countries. So far, only five individuals in the U.S. have been found to have contracted it, while more than 110 people were being tested for the disease in 26 states. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency,

By contrast, more than 8,200 Americans have died of the flu so far this winter, and 34,000 died of the flu last year, which was not considered to have been a particularly severe year for that illness. WHO has estimated the flu kills up to 650,000 people per year worldwide. Public health officials have not been shy about observing that when it comes to the deadliness of the ordinary flu vs. the Coronavirus, there is simply no comparison.

Some of the advice about dealing with the Coronavirus threat seems obvious, such as keeping a close eye on employees who have recently returned from China and blocking any travel to that country by employees for the foreseeable future. At the same time, managers need to guard against employees of Chinese or other Asian ancestry being discriminated against by ignorant fellow employees or customers. The best way to prevent that occurring is through education.

The CDC offers general information about the disease as well as regular news updates about its progress on the center’s website, which employers can access and provide to their employees, recommends attorney Emma Follansbee of the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. As an employer, the goal at the outset is to instill confidence in employees that you are continuing to monitor the outbreak, and are proceeding with the employees’ best interests in mind.

“Providing education and information on the virus itself should be brief, and reiterate only what official sources have issued,” she adds. “In educating employees on this topic, ‘less is more’ in many ways. Employers are generally not experts on the Coronavirus or other viruses, and will want to avoid opining on the effects or contraction of a disease.”

Follansbee stresses the importance of managers and human resources staff to provide accurate, uniform information about the outbreak of the disease if and when questions are presented, and to avoid offering uninformed medical opinions about the effects of the disease and how it is spread.

Adopt Workplace Policies

According to attorney Howard A. Mavity of the Fisher Phillips law firm, the next step is to “repeatedly, creatively and aggressively encourage employees, students and others to take steps to avoid the flu. Perhaps the most important message is to stay home if sick. These same measures would most likely stop any spread of the current Coronavirus.”

He says managers should advise employees to:

● Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

● Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

● Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

● Stay home when you are sick.

● Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

● Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

● Surgical masks have not been proven to definitively protect someone because they may not be tight and allow droplets around the edges. However, masks prevent you from unconsciously touching your eyes, nose and mouth, so they may offer a measure of protection, he says.

Mavity also advises that if any employee comes into work with a fever or difficulty in breathing, this indicates that they should seek medical evaluation. “While these symptoms are not always associated with influenza and the likelihood of their having Coronavirus is extremely low, it pays to err on the side of caution,” he suggests.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a new webpage for employers that links to resources on the agency’s site about workplace safety and health issues raised by the Coronavirus outbreak.

These other links connect to OSHA recommendations about how to prevent exposure to healthcare, clinical laboratory, airline, waste management and other workers. It also links to several agency standards and directives that may apply in the outbreak, including the general duty clause that obligates all employers to maintain a safe and healthy workplace, notes attorney David E. Dubberly of the Nexsen Pruet law firm.

Other links take employers to OSHA’s personal protective equipment (PPE) standard, and OSHA’s recordkeeping and reporting requirements: The PPE standard requires that protective equipment, clothing and barriers be provided whenever necessary to prevent employees from being exposed to environmental hazards.

The recordkeeping and reporting requirements mandate that certain employers keep a record of work-related illnesses and injuries. According to OSHA, while recordkeeping regulations exempt recording of the common cold and flu, the 2019 Novel Coronavirus “is a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job.” In addition, reporting requirements may apply.

OSHA's webpage also links to the latest CDC recommendations on travel to China. In making decisions about international business travel, employers should keep the general duty clause in mind, Dubberly advises.

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