Cases of a new virus emerged from China has business owners rattled. Concerned for the health of their company, employers are scrambling for information on the Coronavirus – What is it? How is it spread? And most importantly, how can I prepare and protect my staff?
Detailed below is a brief background on the Coronavirus and three action steps business leaders can take to proactively address employee concerns.
The Coronavirus is not a new illness. In fact, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are very common in animals and have been identified by scientists as infecting humans since the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most coronaviruses can make humans mildly sick if infected, for example, the common cold. In recent history, we have come across newer coronaviruses that are evolving and causing severe illness. A good example of this is SARS, causing “a worldwide outbreak in 2002-2003 with 8,098 probable cases including 774 deaths”.
Now, we are experiencing another potentially fatal virus with the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, simply referred to in the media as the Coronavirus or COVID-19. First reported in Wuhan, China, this was originally spread animal-to-person; however, with more and more people contracting the virus, person-to-person spreading is evident. While not a lot is known about this coronavirus, it is thought that this is spreading within close human contact by respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes.
The Coronavirus is spreading quickly through China and 31 other countries and territories. “Fourteen cases have been diagnosed in the United States, in addition to 39 cases among repatriated persons from high-risk settings, for a current total of 53 cases within the United States.” However, , the CDC’s guidance for the general public has not changed from the normal message you hear this time of year:
“For the general public, no additional precautions are recommended at this time beyond the simple daily precautions that everyone should always take. It is currently flu and respiratory disease season, and CDC recommends getting vaccinated, taking everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, and taking flu antivirals if prescribed.”
The U.S. Department of State has also put precautions in place to mitigate additional cases rising. Foreign nationals who have been to China in the previous 14 days are not allowed entry to the United States. Citizens, residents and their immediately family who have been to certain parts of China are subject to monitoring and even quarantine to evaluate if they are infected with the coronavirus. All nonessential travel to China is advised to be avoided.
Action Steps For Business Leaders
While there is still a relatively low risk for the general American public, there are a couple of actions that can be taken to proactively address employee concerns.
- Reconsider travel plans. Do you have employees in China or preparing to travel to China? Is travel essential at this time or can the employee be evacuated? Many companies have evacuated employees from China or suspended travel that is not considered non-essential. Although it is not reasonable for employees to reject travel altogether in general for fear of getting the virus, companies should listen to and consider accommodation for employees traveling to China if they are elderly, have an immunodeficiency, or are pregnant, according to SHRM. Employers should also continue to monitor travel alerts issued by the State Department.
- Provide education. While this has been declared a global public health emergency, there is still a low infection risk in the United States. Education will be a key to fight the panic that may rise in the face of the Coronavirus. If you are in a state where a confirmed case has occurred, educating employees about the of the disease can be beneficial as well. It is also important to educate your employees on any company policies that this could be impactful, sick leave, paid time off, absence reporting, working from home, etc.
- Provide supplies to your employees. Ensuring all hand soaps are adequately stocked and providing items like hand sanitizer, facial tissue, and disinfecting wipes are all little things that can be an effective tool to fight not only the spread of the Coronavirus but also the spread of influenza and other illnesses common this time of the year.
Finally, what if the virus continues to spread?
It will be important to consider how you will handle a potential situation in which one of your employees contracts Coronavirus. If you have an employee who you believe may be impacted by the Coronavirus, your course of action will need to be determined on a case by case basis. It is important to remember your requirements by OSHA to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all employees.
For example, it would be reasonable to ask employees who have traveled to Wuhan, to avoid coming to work for the incubation period. It may be reasonable to ask employees to stay home if they have been to other areas with confirmed cases if there is a possibility they came into contact with an infected person. It may also be reasonable to ask someone exhibiting signs of a contagious illness to seek medical treatment or remain home from work.
However, you will also need to consider the American with Disabilities Act in your decision to avoid discriminating against individuals who are disabled or perceived to have a disability or the possibility of discriminating against someone based on their ethnicity or nationality.
If your community is impacted, it would be beneficial to put social distancing measures into place. Allow employees to work from home when possible. Be prepared for an increased numbers of employee absences due to caring for ill family members. In response to this, it will be more important to cross train your employees to ensure the company can operate without key personnel. Replace in person meetings with teleconferences or video meetings. Anything you can do to prevent the potential spread of communicable diseases without disrupting your business.
If you have any questions regarding your obligations and options when it comes to a situation arising from the Coronavirus, please do not hesitate to reach out to your HR Team at Tilson.