The rapid spread of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) across the globe has changed the dialogue of the global workplace just in the past few weeks. As of March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports more than 128,000 confirmed cases worldwide (up 45,000 in just the past two weeks) resulting in over 4600 deaths and leading the WHO to declare COVID-19 to have reached pandemic status. Here in the U.S., there were just 70 confirmed cases at the beginning of this month; as of March 12, that number is greater than 1400, with numbers expected to continue climbing.

Given this evolving and fluid situation, business owners have a responsibility to understand how coronavirus may affect their business—especially when it comes to employees, workplace safety and their legal obligations. While business owners should monitor the situation daily, the following overview should give them a basic track to run on.

What to Know About Coronavirus
The information about novel coronavirus changes almost daily as scientists and the WHO try to track its movements and identify patterns. Here’s what we understand so far:

  • It is a virus that affects the respiratory system, often causing pneumonia.
  • It may be transferred person to person via “respiratory droplets” (e.g., coughing and sneezing) similarly to the flu. It may also transfer via surface contamination.
  • Incubation period may be between 2 and 14 days (about 5 days on average).
  • Symptoms may be very mild to life-threatening or even fatal.
  • Adults above age 50 and/or with pre-existing conditions are more susceptible to life-threatening complications.

Addressing COVID-19 in the Workplace
Understanding that this pandemic has the potential to disrupt business-as-usual for a time, how can business owners balance their work obligations with the need to maintain a safe workplace environment? We recommend referring to any/all of the following for guidance:

  • OSHA—The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has published some guidance on reducing the risks of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. While it’s too soon for OSHA to have specific standards regarding this disease, it’s incumbent on employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards, so the accepted wisdom is to treat COVID-19 as one would a safety hazard and respond accordingly.
  • EEOC—The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published some informative pandemic preparedness guidelines (originally for influenza, but applicable here) that help employers navigate the fine legal line between workers’ HIPAA rights and the need to protect employees.
  • CDC—The Centers for Disease Controlhave also published a helpful Business Pandemic Checklist to help business owners prepare for the impact of a spreading disease on their business, their employees and their customers, along with guidance for establishing policies, communicating with workers, etc.

Additional Guidance
Pro-activity and common sense should be the guiding principles when determining your workplace response to COVID-19. The safety of your workers and customers is top priority, so be sure to educate your team on the virus, how it spreads, and how to protect themselves and others. Remind them of your sick leave policies and urge people to stay home if they are ill. If telecommuting is an option, make it available to your employees where applicable. In the process, take care to protect your employees’ privacy and tread carefully to avoid discriminatory practices. If you’re uncertain of the space between your rights and responsibilities, reach out to us—we’re happy to help.