In this Special Bulletin, we address how to respond to potential employment issues arising from the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“Coronavirus”) and we recommend steps to limit the impact of the Coronavirus in the workplace.
The Public Health Response and Current Situation
As of January 27, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has issued a Level 3 health travel notice (the highest threat level) recommending that people avoid all nonessential travel to China.
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) declared the Coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” After WHO’s global health emergency declaration, the U.S Department of State raised its China travel advisory to Level 4: “Do Not Travel.”
On January 31, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in the United States and implemented the following:
- Any U.S. citizen returning to the U.S. who has been in the Hubei province of mainland China in the previous 14 days will be subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine.
- Any U.S. citizen returning to the U.S. who has been in any other part of mainland China within the previous 14 days will undergo proactive entry health screening at a select number of ports of entry and up to 14 days of monitored self-quarantine to ensure they have not contracted the virus and do not pose a public health risk.
Also on January 31, the U.S. President signed a presidential proclamation, suspending the entry into the United States of foreign nationals, other than immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled in China within the last 14 days.
What is the Coronavirus?
The Coronavirus is a respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei province of China. This virus most likely originally emerged from an animal source but now seems to be spreading person-to-person. For confirmed Coronavirus infections, reported illnesses have ranged from people with little to no symptoms to people being severely ill and dying. Symptoms can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The CDC believes at this time that symptoms of the Coronavirus may appear in as few as two or as long as fourteen days after exposure.
How does the Coronavirus spread?
According to the CDC, little is known about how the Coronavirus spreads. Most often, spread from person-to-person happens from close contacts (about six feet). Person-to-person spread occurs mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or can be inhaled into the lungs. It is currently unclear if a person can contract Coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
Typically, as with most respiratory viruses, people are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest). With the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, however, there have been reports of spread from an infected patient who had no symptoms to a close contact. There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with the Coronavirus and investigations are ongoing.
What Actions can Employers take to Prevent the Transmission of the Coronavirus?
- As discussed above, the United States is imposing a 14-day mandatory quarantine on individuals who have traveled to Hubei province, and 14 days of monitored self-quarantine for individuals returning from other parts of mainland China. The director of the CDC stated that people in mandatory self-quarantine “will be monitored by the local health departments in a self-monitoring situation in their home.”
- Currently, there is no Coronavirus vaccine available, so the CDC is recommending standard precautions, such as: washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoiding close contact with sick people; staying at home when you are sick; and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.
- Employers should prepare for the possibility that some employees may have to stay home in the event of school closures or childcare concerns.
- Employers should ensure that common areas in the workplace, including computer keyboards used by more than one person, are kept clean and disinfected.
- Employers should inform employees that information regarding medical conditions is kept strictly confidential and they will not suffer retaliation for reporting that they are ill or if they need to take a family or medical leave.
Issues that Employers Should Consider Regarding the Coronavirus
- Employers and employees should not prejudice employees of Asian descent because of fear of this new virus. Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have the Coronavirus.
- Follow federal, state and local laws, as well as any agency policies and/or collective bargaining agreements provisions, covering family and medical leave entitlements, and confidentiality requirements.
- Review all applicable guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), CDC and WHO. Although OSHA has not announced specific standards covering the Coronavirus, it has issued a notice indicating that employers should be aware of general standards to which they may be subject under OSHA. The Notice is available at: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/novel_coronavirus/standards.html.
- Avoid asking employees questions about any known or suspected medical condition or medical history. In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released a notice titled “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” which provides guidance. The Notice is available at: https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html
- If applicable, refer to your agency’s pandemic or health protection policy for further guidance.
Information about the Coronavirus is constantly developing. Liebert Cassidy Whitmore will continue to monitor employment issues related to the Coronavirus and will issue ongoing bulletins. Employers should also continue to refer to the CDC, WHO, and OSHA websites for the latest information.