At Steimle Birschbach, we represent many businesses with international operations and clients who regularly travel abroad. Given the recent COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in China, we have received questions from our clients regarding how business owners can protect themselves and their employees from this potentially fatal respiratory virus. Below is a summary of guidance that has been provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other organizations to assist employers in protecting their employees and their business operations.
What actions should employers take to combat the spread of coronavirus in the workplace?
Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and applicable state law, employers have a general duty to provide their employees with safe working conditions that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recently updated its Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease. The CDC has recommended the following strategies for employers to use to combat the spread of coronavirus in the workplace:
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home – employers should ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of such policies.
- Separate sick employees – the CDC recommends that employees who appear to have symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.
- Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene – employers should instruct employees to clean their hands often with hand sanitizer or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand sanitizer in the workplace for employee use. Place hand sanitizer in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.
- Perform routine cleaning – routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, counter tops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label. Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
What can employers do in anticipation of Coronavirus becoming more widespread in Wisconsin?
There is no doubt that if the outbreak of coronavirus rises to the level now seen in China, there will be a significant negative impact on productivity and business operations for Wisconsin employers. Employers should evaluate their emergency response procedures and consider if any changes are needed to address what will be done if coronavirus reaches pandemic levels. Employers should visit the CDC website regularly to receive updates. Employers should also be sure to maintain an open dialogue with their employees about concerns about coronavirus, without causing panic. Employers should also stay informed about whether any employees become symptomatic to coronavirus while ensuring that the workplace is as safe and clean as possible to limit any potential spread throughout their workforce. It is important that employers create strategies to limit the disruption that coronavirus may have on business operations if the outbreak reaches pandemic levels or if a small or significant number of employees are subject to quarantine.
What can employers do when employees must travel to China or other regions where coronavirus has spread?
The CDC and State Department have suggested that employers restrict employees from traveling to China or to other high-risk regions unless it is absolutely necessary. If employees are required travel to China or other regions where the coronavirus has spread, they should engage in common hygiene practices including frequently washing hands using soap and water, regularly using hand sanitizer, avoiding contact with animals, and wearing personal protective equipment such as masks that are designed to limit exposure to potential infection.
How should employers handle employees traveling from China to the United States?
Of course, employers must adhere to protocols for employees who have traveled to high-risk regions and are subject to the mandatory quarantine or monitored self-quarantine. Employers are also strongly encouraged to adopt protocols for employees who have traveled to regions where coronavirus is present and demonstrate symptoms of coronavirus upon their return. Employees with symptoms should be encouraged to visit a doctor’s office or medical clinic and should stay home and away from others for at least 14 days. If possible, employers should offer the opportunity to work remotely or offer a leave of absence to employees showing symptoms.
Can employees refuse to travel if requested by their employer?
If employees refuse to travel out of fear of contracting coronavirus, attempting to work out an informal resolution is the best first step. If an employee still objects to traveling and there are no alternative means to accomplish business objectives (teleconferencing, etc.), employers should weigh business risks, proceed with caution, and consult with an attorney before taking action against employees refusing to travel as part of their job duties, as there are likely important employment law considerations under state, local, and federal law that should be discussed.
Can employers prohibit employees from traveling to high-risk regions on their personal time?
Employers generally cannot prohibit employees from engaging in otherwise legal personal travel abroad. However, employers are encouraged to communicate precautions that an employee can take before they travel to high-risk regions. Businesses are also permitted, and absolutely should monitor employees for symptoms upon their return from business or personal travel to China or other high-risk regions.
Coronavirus has already had a significant effect on the markets, global supply chains, and entire global economy. Given that we do not yet know how widespread coronavirus will become in the United States, it is crucial that business owners remain vigilant, stay up to date with developments regarding the coronavirus, and put a contingency plan in place now to limit business disruptions and the effect that a widespread outbreak of coronavirus could have on your business and your employees.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to the Attorneys at Steimle Birschbach if you have any questions about how you can further protect your business and your employees from the spread of coronavirus. Please contact us by giving us a call at (920) 683-3500 or clicking HERE.
Steimle Birschbach, LLC – Straight talk. Solid advice. That’s our way of doing business.
This post is provided for informational purposes only and by its very nature is general. This information is not intended as legal advice.