As the number of reported cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to rise, employers are increasingly confronted with the possibility of an outbreak in the workplace.
Employers are obligated to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for their employees, but are also subject to a number of legal requirements protecting workers. For example, employers must comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in their approach to dealing with COVID-19.
- COVID-19 – The illness caused by the coronavirus can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Cases are expected to spread throughout the United States.
- Disease Prevention – Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees. They may require employees to stay home from work if they are at risk of spreading the disease.
- Legal Obligations – Employers must also consider their obligations under workplace laws.
What is the Coronavirus?
The 2019 novel coronavirus (“COVID-19” or “coronavirus”) is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that is a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, runny nose, cough and trouble breathing. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some, usually people with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. The incubation period for COVID-19 is from two to 14 days.
Initially detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, the first case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported on January 21, 2020. Since then, the disease has spread to more than 50 people within the continental United States, with CDC officials warning of further outbreaks.
How is Coronavirus Spread?
The available information about how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. COVID-19 is a new disease and there is more to learn about its transmission, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States.
According to the CDC, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet) or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
It may also be possible for a person to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has been contaminated with the virus and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic. Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms, and there have been reports of this occurring, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
There are a number of steps that employers can take to address the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace. In addition to reviewing the compliance concerns outlined in this Compliance Bulletin, employers should:
- Closely monitor the CDC, WHO and state and local public health department websites for information on the status of the coronavirus.
- Proactively educate your employees on what is known about the virus, including its transmission and prevention.
- Establish a written communicable illness policy and response plan that covers communicable diseases readily transmitted in the workplace.
- Consider measures that can help prevent the spread of illness, such as allowing employees flexible work options like working from home.