Supporting Employees with Coronavirus

By Katie Navarra April 10, 2020
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sick at home

​The coronavirus pandemic is drastically changing how and where businesses are operating. Despite the upheaval, one thing hasn't changed: an employer's duty to protect employees' privacy should they become infected.

Be prepared to communicate with your staff and help employees connect with resources they may not know about. Protecting the privacy of an employee with the virus and other workers' wellness is paramount. Support will likely need to extend beyond traditional sick leave and well wishes for a rapid recovery.

Protecting Privacy

Telling employees a colleague has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, does not require revealing who has been infected. It's one thing if staff can figure it out, but quite another if they are told explicitly, according to Peter Cappelli, a professor and the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. State laws may protect employees from having information about their health revealed; the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act might not apply, but the Americans with Disabilities Act might, depending on the illness, he explained.

[SHRM members only: COVID-19 Employee Health Screening Form]

"Other employees have no right to the information about any employee's health. They need to know what the risk is, not who created the risk," Cappelli said. "Employees who have special health risks might reasonably expect to be told if someone working near them has the virus."


SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Supporting Employees

The impact of a coronavirus diagnosis can be greater than with other diseases, given the societywide infection rates and the strain the virus is putting on the U.S. health care system. Typically, when an employee has the flu, workplaces don't get involved with connecting individuals with community resources. However, broader support services may be necessary for employees with the coronavirus.

Rosemary Batt, the Alice Cook Professor of Women and Work and chairperson of the department of human resource studies at Cornell University, says employers need to understand the different resources employees have to draw on.

"The employer needs to view the worker in the wider context of his or her family—and work with the family and other community organizations to set up support systems for family members, as well," she said. "Do employees with families have the adequate space to quarantine the individual worker for the necessary time so that the other family members do not get infected? If not, are there alternative locations where the employee may stay if they are not sick enough for hospitalization?"

[SHRM members-only Q&A: Can we pay for a former or current employee's COBRA coverage? ]

Finding alternative locations to quarantine individuals away from their families was critical to China's reduction in COVID-19 cases and is necessary here in the U.S., Batt said. If a worker recovers but has transmitted the virus to other family members, he or she will be preoccupied caring for others and unable to return to work. Finding alternative locations to convalesce contributes not only to the health of the employee and family, but it benefits the employer, as well.

"HR professionals should develop strong links with other local employers, through local SHRM [Society for Human Resource Management] networks for example, and other community organizations so that they can bring to bear a wider set of resources and expertise," she said.

Those who live alone may not have the means to care for themselves while recovering. By making connections with community resources, HR professionals can provide advice on where an employee can find the care he or she needs to recuperate. Covering the cost of mental health counseling as needed, even if it isn't covered by an insurance plan, is also essential, according to Batt.

The stigma of having a potentially deadly virus can be painful, Cappelli said. "Treat [employees with COVID-19] as if they have any other illness from which most people recover relatively quickly," he said.

Obligations to All Staff

Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates, employees have a legal right to a workplace free of known safety and health hazards. Employers need to take preventive action for employees who are still at work by providing masks and the ability to maintain social distancing, and observing all the safety precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, employers should consider offering mental health resources and counseling if they don't already do so.

HR professionals can play a critical role by regularly checking in on employees working remotely, responding to employees' needs and providing a list of support resources offered by the employer in conjunction with community organizations.

"Use the time available to do a workforce needs assessment and undertake a review of the training initiatives available to workers," Batt said. "Plan for the future by developing a set of alternative scenarios about demand for the company's products and services. That is a win-win solution. Employees benefit from future job security, and employers benefit from the ongoing productivity of the workforce."

 Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.

Provide input as the DOL develops further guidance on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Participate online at https://ffcra.ideascale.com through April 10—an extended deadline.

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