Your Questions Answered About Coronavirus

By SHRM HR Knowledge Advisors March 18, 2020
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On March 10, the SHRM HR Knowledge Advisors held an online chat on Communicable Diseases. Here are their answers to HR professionals' questions about coronavirus and its effects on the workplace.

 

Do you have any notice to send employees regarding the coronavirus and what they need to do?

We do have a memo to employees that can be customized as necessary. 

 

Our front desk clerk at our hotel is wearing a mask because of the coronavirus. We think it will make our guests nervous when she is wearing it. Can we make her take it off?

According to the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html), it is not recommended that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of facemasks also is crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
It may be good to provide CDC's guidance to staff who are client-facing. It is also good to practice preventative measures (wiping down counters, phones handles, etc.) to help prevent germs from being spread: 


My question is about advice for employers if a case is confirmed in the workplace. Will the location be required to close for a period of time? How would we be expected to advise other employees at the location? Would everyone have to SQ?

The guidance available suggests that employers should let employees know that a case of Coronavirus has been confirmed in the workplace. It is a conservative approach to close the office (or spaces an employee was in) and hire professionals to clean the areas an employee may have some in contact with.

 

When are adults considered to have a fever and when should the employer send an employee home if he or she is not willing to do so?

According to the CDC, an adult has a fever when their temperature reaches 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (see https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/air/reporting-deaths-illness/definitions-symptoms-reportable-illnesses.html). 

Even though an employee may not want to go home, an employer might still require they do so when showing symptoms. I am including resources below that you may find useful:

 

An employee is returning from China from visiting her family. Our employees are concerned that when she returns, she may have the virus. Can I make her get tested for it and have her doctor indicate that she is free of the virus?

Generally, an employer may have a policy or practice of having employees work remotely after travel to high risk areas. An employer would want to ensure that such a practice is applied uniformly and consistently to limit risk of any possible discrimination claims. In my experience an employer may be able to ask for doctor's note if it is consistent with their policy. Asking an employee to be tested may run afoul of ADA. For more information, please visit: 

 

How do you advise companies to move to a mandatory work from home vs. encouraging employees to work from home?

Many employers will implement an all-encompassing temporary telework policy, if after conducting a risk assessment, it determines is the appropriate option. Employers should review CDC and NIOSH guidance, as well as state health department guidance in conjunction with internal risks. The next step is to build a business contingency case for working from home.

 

If we have products and samples being shipped from any of the affected countries, are there additional steps we should be taking to ensure they are safe?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Even though the new coronavirus can stay on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days (depending on the type of surface), it is very unlikely that the virus will persist on a surface after being moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures. If you think a surface may be contaminated, use a disinfectant to clean it. After touching it, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water."
Source: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

 

If you have a closure, is it best to go ahead and pay all FT employees and not have them use benefited time?

Trends show that many employers are paying employees for business closures to self-quarantine periods resulting from the coronavirus. However, employers are generally only required to pay nonexempt employees for time worked. As for exempt employees, if an exempt employee works any part of the workweek, and an employer closes the business for the remainder of the week, that exempt employee is due their regular salary for the whole week. However, if an exempt employee performs no work in a workweek, they are not entitled to compensation for the week.

 

Are we able to survey employees if they or their family is traveling and to where (travel for personal reasons)?

Employers are generally permitted to request that employees disclose personal travel plans. However, employers should be sure to apply their practice consistently (e.g. not single out Asian employees), in an effort to avoid perceptions of discrimination.

 

If this gets worse in my area, can I allow for my office employees to work from home, but legally make my field crew (solar installers) still report to jobsite and work?

Managing telework arrangements is generally at the discretion of an individual employer. Not all jobs are conducive to work-from-home arrangements, so it is common that employers designate only certain positions as eligible for telework. 

For positions that are not suitable for telework, employers might assess the risks of exposure to those employees. If employees are at high risk, a conservative approach may be to require those employees to self-quarantine.

 

If someone says they have a high-risk spouse and therefore requests to work from home, do we need to get a doctor's note saying the spouse is high risk?

Generally, an employer may be able to ask for a note, however, recent guidance from the CDC is that doctors are so overwhelmed they may not be able to provide a note on a timely basis. Employers may want to demonstrate flexibility by allowing an employee to telecommute. To do so may protect that employee from infecting their coworkers. 

Here is a resource you may find helpful:

 

Are there any legal implications or ramifications of asking customers if they have traveled internationally, or anyone in their office has, before our employees go onsite to their office?

I am not aware of regulation that would prohibit employers from making this type of inquiry. However, most employers will be consistent in their practices of screening clients, and ensure it is done in a nondiscriminatory manner.

 

Do we have the right as an employer to mandate that production employees wash their hands immediately upon entering the facility, maybe as they enter the door?

 I am not aware of a law that would prohibit an employee from engaging in hygiene practices as part of their job duties. Employers should encourage employees to practice good hygiene. The CDC recommends people wash their hands often.        

 

If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, or suspects they have it for whatever reason, and is missing work, obviously, we know we cannot tell other employees that person has the virus. However, we are only 18 employees. Chances are, everyone else will have been exposed. What do we do in those circumstances? Wouldn't we need to let the exposed employees know they are at risk?

Employers may want to inform employees regarding possible exposure. However, they want to ensure that they are keeping employee health information confidential. While employees may be able to figure out possible connections based on co-workers' absences, employers may want to educate employees on how they can best protect themselves and what steps they should take should they be exposed or experience symptoms. 

 

How should companies be handling sensitive legal or financial mail if we decide to close our office?

In that event, an employer might have mail forwarded to a PO box or collected by a trusted, senior leader of the organization. This might also be an item included in an employer's business continuity plan.

 

Can an employer, in the interest of co-worker and customer safety, require an employee to go home and return only with a doctor's note? Even if employee has used all available benefit hours?

When an employee exhibits flu-like symptoms, or has returned from a high-risk country, it is generally permissible that an employer require that the employee self-quarantine or work from home. Many employers, as a matter of policy, require that an employee provide a doctor's note clearing them to work upon returning from sick leave. 

Although an employer is not required to pay a nonexempt employee for time off, they may be required to pay an exempt employee who has worked during a workweek and is instructed not to return to work by their employer. Additionally, there is a trend of employers providing pay during this type of leave.

Here related resources that may be helpful:

 

I spoke with our leadership team about revisiting our sick leave policy, but they don't want to make any changes. Makes it hard to encourage people to stay home if they've already used up their sick leave. Not all of our employees are equipped to be able to work from home. Any other suggestions? Thank you.

In many cases, employers may elect to hold meetings virtually rather than in-person, as well as educate employees on social distancing practices, hand washing techniques and respiratory etiquette, in order to reduce the risk of contamination.

Here are a few resources that may help:

 

Does SHRM recommend Bay Area employers to enforce or offer employees to work from home?

SHRM does not make recommendations on how individual employers should proceed in their given situations. Employers should consider guidance from the CDC, as well as their own business necessity. In areas where there is a high rate of affected patients, employers might allow or require telework, if their positions allow, as an effort to reduce exposure.

 

One of our Service Techs (repairs gas pumps) is requesting we provide with gloves, wipes, hand sanitizer and face masks. We cannot even find all of the above to supply him or our 60 others? We have ordered wipes on Amazon $25 tub due to shipping. Is this and gloves enough?

Many individuals may be seeing the shortage of supplies which can be difficult. The CDC recommends face masks for those who are experiencing symptoms. Employers may also wish to educate employees on how they can protect themselves against the virus. 

 

Can we require our employees to let us know if they are diagnosed with the coronavirus? How should we ask them for the disclosure?

Employers have been asking employees to report communicable diseases so that an employer can take appropriate steps. It is also possible that an employer will be contacted by a local health department. 

 

Do you have policies regarding mandatory sick pay when ER makes a decision to have EE's returning from those 5 foreign countries affected by the virus to stay home for 14 days? Is ER required to pay this?

In absence of an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that requires pay. Non-exempt employee under FLSA regulations must only be paid for hours worked. An exempt employee must be paid for any week in which they perform work. However, if an exempt employee performs no work during the week pay is not required. The use of PTO would be a matter of an employer's policy. At this time SHRM doesn't have any example policies that require quarantine pay for employees. You may find the following resource useful: 

 

Can you make an essential employee work if they do not volunteer, such as a medical provider who refuses to see patients?

There generally is not a clear answer on this and an employer may want to consult with their medical boards/ licensing guidelines or speak with legal counsel for guidance on this topic. Here are resources for the Coronavirus you may find helpful:

 

We have an employee who is taking a cruise at the end of the week. Should we ask her to self-quarantine upon her return. I checked the CDC's website and it does not state as such. The Dept of State strongly recommends against cruise travel.

Generally, an employer should consult the CDC and State department list of high risk areas. If an employee has traveled to a high-risk area an employer may want to have an employee work from home during the incubation period as a precaution. An employer would want to ensure that they are applying such practice consistently and uniformly. The following resource may provide additional information: 

 

Would like to know what percentage of organizations have cut all essential travel and meetings.

I am providing the following resources about business travel and the coronavirus, though at this point SHRM has not conducted a survey on this topic. 

What if employees have been to community spread areas that have COVID-19 and come back to office after a business trip? Shouldn't they stay home for the 14-day period suggested?

Depending on where employees traveled from some employers may request employees work from home. Employers may also wish to encourage employees to notify them if they believe they may have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms. 

 

For a nonprofit agency providing direct care in a group home, can an employer require or mandate the employee to work or stay at work for the health and safety of the person(s) with intellectual and developmental disabilities being supported?

An employer may be able to do so but state law may come into play. Many employers will review a state health department or licensing guidelines for the industry regarding communicable diseases. Also, review state maximum days/hours of work laws, if applicable. Lastly, an employer will conduct a risk assessment to determine the most appropriate response.

 

Can we restrict an employee from leaving their workspace on breaks (both paid and unpaid) to minimize commingling with colleagues, to help contain the spread of virus if someone is unknowingly infected?

 It is a more common approach to encourage employees to use social distancing guidelines while at work. Here is an example poster that can be used.         

 

My understanding from another call is that if an employee is out with the coronavirus that illness can be treated as FMLA. Is that correct?

Having the coronavirus could be considered a serious health condition under the FMLA if an employee works for a covered employer, meets the eligibility requirements, and the condition meets the definition under the regulations. 

 

How do we handle allowing for telecommuting when half of our employees can do their job by computer remotely and the other half are technicians in the field and have to be on a jobsite?

Employers can encourage telecommuting when a position allows for it. If it is not possible for an employee to telecommute, then an employer can offer a leave of absence when applicable. Employees working the field are typically educated about preventive measures and provided the tools and resources (sanitizer, latex gloves, etc.) to help reduce the risk.

 

Can you provide advice for managers on what they can ask/say if they're concerned someone is sick? How to send home? what about asking them to take their temperature?

Some employers are asking employees if they have traveled to a high-risk area or if they have been exposed to a communicable disease, if they are exhibiting symptoms.
The following resource indicates an employer is able to send symptomatic employees home. Please see below:

Can an employer require employees to not tell others about their possible exposure? Does it matter whether the exposure occurred while on duty or during personal time?

Employers may want to be cautious about limiting an employee's ability to discuss possible exposure as it may have an impact on employee safety. If an employee has been exposed or is showing symptoms it may be possible to spread the virus to others. Employees that have been exposed to the virus at work may be eligible for workers' compensation. 

Do you know any realistic expectations around testing? We have had employees say they are home sick and "getting tested." What timing should we expect on that? Can we still require a doctor's note?

Unfortunately, estimating a time frame for testing is difficult as it will depend on the conditions in the geographic location. According to the CDC, it is safe to assume that the doctors will be backed up so testing and the ability to provide doctors notes in a timely manner may be hindered. The CDC is recommending that employers not require doctor notes for this reason. If an employee has been exposed to coronavirus or has symptoms, many employers will require an employee to work from home or take leave for the 14-day incubation period

 

An employee is concerned that their friend is sick and may have coronavirus. The have told their co-workers and everyone is worried. Should we have that employee work from home for a time?

An employer may consider have employees who are sick or who have had close contact with someone who has symptoms to work from home. For more information please review the following resources: 

 

Do you have any resources on how to help employees feel connected if they are working from home? If we have to work home for a few weeks we want to help those employees who may feel lonely or isolated.

The Knowledge Center has articles related to managing a remote workforce which is related and could help. Here is are SHRM articles to get you started. 

 

Will there be any guidance on how to handle employees who are not sick but must stay home because of school closing? How will their time be classified if they cannot work from home?

Currently, there is no guidance outside of an employer's policy on handling absences for personal reasons. Many employers will allow employees to use PTO or Vacation and some are allowing access to sick leave policies, though this is an employer decision on what leave may be made available.

 

What could you say to a supervisor that may not be taking the coronavirus spread seriously? How do you get them to see the severity of it if his team is feeling that he isn't concerned about their well-being?

It can be helpful to educate supervisors on their responsibility to help ensure the employer has a safe working environment. Employers may also want to review applicable sick leave policies and requirements regarding employees not coming in. An employer may also wish to discuss the possible workers' compensation concerns that may arise, should employees become infected at work. 

If a public school campus is shut down, will those days be treated like winter/snow days for employees or be made up at the end of the school year?

Great question. This will be a state or county school board decision to make. I recommend contacting your local HR department at the board of education for clarification. Alternatively, check with the union representative for any language in a collective bargaining agreements.

 

If an employee at a manufacturing facility is diagnosed, does that mean we should shut down the entire facility?

An employer has an obligation to provide a safe environment for employees ... Generally, an employer would do a risk assessment and may ask employees who may be at risk to self-quarantine at home and return to work with a doctor's note that they are healthy. an employer may also want to clean the facility. Whether or not an employer closes down may or may not be required.

 

If an employee cannot perform remote work, has been in contact with coronavirus but presently does not have symptoms what does an employer do when other employees are concerned?

Under OSHA an employer has a general duty to provide a safe work environment for employees. Even if an employee is unable to telework, an employer may require an employee to stay home. Depending on company policy an employer may be able to use PTO for their time off or an employer may elect to pay them. 

 

We are a health care organization so the majority of our employees have daily patient interaction. The CDC recommended not to require a doctor's note from employees. If an employee is out sick, can we still require a doctor's note before they return to work? What are your suggestions?

Although an employer may be able to ask an employee for a note the CDC has indicated physicians may not be able to provide notes as they are overwhelmed treating patients. An employer may want to be flexible during this difficult time and may allow to have leave even without a note.

Can we ask our employees to report a diagnosis of COVID-19 to us and be compliant?

An employer may run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when asking for a specific diagnosis. Employers may have a policy for reporting communicable diseases, as noted below:

 

What are employer best practices to respond to the coronavirus?

Employers may want to provide employees with correct information on how they can protect themselves as well as steps employees should take should they be exposed or experience symptoms. Employers may also wish to provide additional cleaning materials for employees or update their cleaning requirements. 

 

Do companies receiving products from China have to take steps when unloading product or shipments?

As per the SHRM webcast earlier today with the CDC, there is no information at this time to suggest the Coronavirus would be transferred to surfaces in shipments. They will re-evaluate as more data is available.

 

We have an employee returning from travel in Thailand. Are there any restrictions we can place on her return to the office?

Generally an employer may ask an employee to work at home when they return from a high-risk country. Here are resources on this topic:

A candidate for an executive-level job informed me he was going to China in a couple weeks. His trip to China is prior to the interview. What can we do to protect the interview panel and our employees to ensure we don't contract the coronavirus?

An employer may wish to set up the interviews through an internet/web meeting rather than hold an in-person interview. If the candidate becomes a finalist, interviews could be scheduled after the recommended 14-day period.

 

What happens if an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus, and we are a food processing facility?

Generally, an employer would need to inform employees, customers, and vendors about their potential exposure to the Coronavirus. An employer may want to consider an extensive cleaning of their facility and having any employees whom had direct contact with an employee to work remotely during the incubation period. For more information, please visit: 

 

If all workers are telecommuting, how do we abide by I-9 completion deadlines if we are not enrolled in E-Verify?

Until other guidance is provided by the USCIS, employers must continue to comply with I-9 requirements. To accomplish Form I-9 completion requirements when a company's offices are closed, an employer representative could arrange to meet a new hire in a public place to complete the I-9, provided they are local. 

I am including a related resource below, for your reference.

 

We are a nonprofit that provides direct services in schools and our income comes from state grants. If the schools close, we cannot provide services. Are we obliged to pay our employees?

In general, if exempt employees are unable to work due to a lack of work for a full workweek, an employer would have to pay the full salary. Typically, nonexempt employees are paid based upon the number of hours worked and if they don't work then they would not be paid. Many employers are allowing employees to use paid leave during the coronavirus situation.

 

How do I retain employees if due to less business I do not have enough work for them and my business is not generating enough money to pay them?

Some businesses may experience a slowdown due to the outbreak depending on their industry. An employer may still be required to pay employees for time worked. For those employers that may not be able to pay in the future, they may have to consider layoffs or furloughs. Employers may not want to promise employees jobs, if they are unable to pay employees. If an employer does have layoffs they may want to provide an expectation of the length. However, it may be hard to retain employees that need income in order to take care of their personal responsibilities. Check state unemployment insurance regulations to determine if partial unemployment or work share programs are an option. 

 

Can an employee enforce a 2-week quarantine for an employee who takes vacation and during that vacation travels outside the country to a non-risk area? Co-workers are concerned. Can the company take action if the employee does not have enough available time to cover an additional 2 weeks?

Generally an employer is able to only request an employee to stay at home/ telework when they return from high-risk countries as determined by CDC or when an employee may show symptoms. An employer may also ask an employee to self-quarantine and provide additional vacation days above and beyond a standard policy.

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