Goldstein Law Group, S.C. is a law firm that specializes
in labor and employment law, business litigation
and legal, business and workplace solutions

 

Coronavirus

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

COVID-19 (aka Coronavirus or CoV) has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).

This FAQ is intended to address common questions regarding CoV in the workplace. Although you may have read that CoV has killed fewer people than the flu does annually and has "poor survivability" on surfaces, it is important to have a plan in place—CoV is virulent, spreading rapidly, and without any known vaccines. Feel free to call or email should you have questions not addressed below, and we will update this space as additional information becomes available.

For more general medical information, see:

Q: What is it?

  • SARS-CoV-2 refers to the virus first reported in China in December 2019 which has since spread internationally, including to Florida, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. SARS is shorthand for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
  • Coronaviruses refers to a group of viruses (including the common cold, SARS, and MERS), to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs.
  • COVID-19 refers to the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, so named by WHO on February 11, 2020.
  • Common symptoms of CoV include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
  • CoV is particularly dangerous for the elderly and individuals with underlying ailments (e.g., asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes).
  • Approximately 80% of those infected recover without requiring special treatment.
  • One in six of those infected become seriously ill, including experiencing difficulty breathing.

Questions?

Call 414-446-8800, or email us at adam@goldsteinsc.com for more information or to schedule a consultation.

Q: What can we do in anticipation of the potential spread of CoV?

A: CoV spreads when "respiratory droplets," released by sneezing, coughing, or talking, are ingested or inhaled by people in close contact with an infected person. The transmission distance of these droplets is an estimated six feet. CoV can also be transmitted when people touch surfaces upon which droplets have landed and subsequently touch their eyes, noses, or mouths. To combat transmission:

  • Install hand sanitizer stations, including at the primary visitor entrance;
  • Make disinfectant wipes available in shared areas and near frequently touched objects and surfaces;
  • Create adequate space for your employees to spread out;
  • Restrict travel to regions with high infection rates;
  • Reconsider air travel;
  • Encourage employees who experience symptoms (e.g., coughing, fever, shortness of breath) to stay away from the workplace until medically cleared to return;
  • Encourage all employees to:
    • Avoid touching their eyes, noses, and mouths;
    • Wash hands regularly, particularly after using a restroom, before eating, and after coughing/sneezing/blowing one’s nose;
    • Schedule phone calls instead of in-person meetings;
    • Minimize the passing of physical items between themselves;
    • Minimize travel to other workplaces.

Now may also be the opportune time to revisit your policies regarding absences (excused v. unexcused, paid v. unpaid, those who can work remotely v. those who cannot, what sort of medical documentation you accept or require) and emergency preparedness.

Consider the ways in which an outbreak might disrupt or otherwise affect your business. This is especially critical for environments that may be particularly susceptible—schools and daycares, assisted living, fitness centers, food service areas, and employees who work in close quarters. How might the following issues impact your business/workforce?

  • Production shutdown;
  • Supply chain disruption;
  • Travel restrictions or interruptions, including public transportation.

Q: Should we revisit our approach to remote work?

A: Yes. How might you maximize remote work to (1) accommodate employees with CoV, (2) accommodate workers who may be more susceptible to illness, and (3) minimize the effects of a facility closing? Revisit remote work policies, procedures, and technology as needed, and clearly communicate any changes to your employees. Audit those tasks not presently done remotely to determine if they could be, if need be.

Q: Should we revisit our sick leave (or equivalent) policy?

A: Yes. Some businesses already have specific policies in place for highly communicable illnesses such as the flu, requiring employees to remain home during an "incubation period." However, many businesses have more general policies which do not anticipate an outbreak of this sort. As a business owner/executive, one of your top priorities is to prevent the spread of CoV by keeping infected employees out of the workplace. Accordingly, it is time to revisit existing policies, or perhaps draft new policies (which may be a sharp departure from what you currently have, i.e., encouraging employees to stay home and perhaps suspending any negative repercussions for doing so).

Your policy should also speak to the employee’s return to work. Stay in contact with the employee regarding his/her prognosis and anticipated return date. As a condition of return, require that the employee provide a physician’s note confirming that the employee is no longer contagious and may return to work. Wisconsin’s only confirmed case (an infected person in Madison, Wisconsin) was recently deemed healthy and was released from isolation.

Q: An employee recently returned from traveling to a region with a high infection rate. What do we do?

A: Presuming there is a reasonable belief of exposure, you have a few options. In some circumstances, you may require a set period away from the office and medical clearance to return. If feasible, the employee may work remotely during this period. Some employers have enacted a paid incubation period for employees (e.g., fourteen days away from the workplace without showing symptoms of CoV) before they can return to the workplace. Keep in mind that these decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis and based on the facts of each case. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and Worker’s Compensation law may also come into play.

Q: An employee has exhibited signs of sickness (e.g., lingering cough, sneezing) at work. What do we do?

A: Send the employee home. Asking an employee who is showing symptoms of a contagious illness to leave the premises is not illegal. When exiting the building, the employee should avoid all contact with others and minimize contact with work surfaces, tools, furniture, and any other objects. Contact professionals to disinfect the employee’s workspace and counsel other employees to avoid the workspace until disinfected. Communicate regularly with the employee as to his/her prognosis and make available any work they can do remotely (if working remotely is feasible and the employee is not incapacitated). As a condition of return, require that the employee provide a physician’s note confirming that the employee is no longer contagious and cleared to return to work.

Q: An employee has been diagnosed with CoV. What do we do?

The employee should be restricted from returning to the workplace until s/he provides a physician’s note certifying that s/he is no longer contagious and can return to work. Assess who has been in close contact with the employee and/or their work area. As to these employees, consider sending them home as well and, at a minimum, closely monitor their health and restrict their contact with others. Contact professionals to disinfect the employee’s workspace and counsel other employees to avoid the workspace until disinfected. Communicate regularly with the employee as to his/her prognosis and make available any work they can do remotely (if working remotely is feasible and the employee is not incapacitated). As a condition of return, require that the employee provide a physician’s note confirming that the employee is no longer contagious and cleared to return to work.

Q: How do we handle an employee’s CoV-related time off from work?

A: If (1) the employee is capable of working, and (2) the employee can do the work remotely, provide the employee with the opportunity to continue working. Accordingly, this would not be considered leave. If the employee does not regularly work remotely, be sure they have the technology they need, and set clear expectations and guidelines for such work.

If an employee diagnosed with CoV is incapacitated or is otherwise unable to work remotely, the employee may qualify for FMLA leave. Keep in mind that this may also apply if your employee is responsible for the care of a family member with CoV (which raises other issues).

If you are not bound by FMLA, and an employee requires time off for CoV, consider your current sick leave, leave of absence, and/or paid time off policies. If your current policies do not adequately address the situation, consider amending them to speak to this circumstance. For example, an employee who is not cleared to return but has used all their paid leave may require a special accommodation (paid or unpaid, suspension of attendance points).

Keep in mind that employees may choose not to report an illness, or try to return to work prematurely, as they do not want to confront the possibility (or inconvenience) of being sick, or because they believe they cannot afford to take the time off of work or go unpaid. With CoV, employers must prioritize keeping infected employees out of the workplace to prevent it from spreading. Accordingly, your new policy may be a sharp departure from other established paid/unpaid time-off policies and protocols (i.e., encouraging employees to stay home and perhaps suspending any negative repercussions for doing so).

Q: What about emergency preparedness?

A: CoV may result in temporary facility shutdowns. For businesses that can continue operating remotely, be sure to reinforce remote work policies and procedures among applicable staff. You may wish to reengage your employees now on pertinent policies, such as evacuation procedures and emergency closing procedures. As with weather-related closings, the Fair Labor Standards Act may come into play relative to paying exempt/nonexempt employees in the event of a closure.

If you do not already have an emergency response procedure, establish one now and assign roles (and backup roles). Consider, for example:

  • Internal and external communications (including client communications regarding delays in production and other business challenges)
  • Internal and external point(s) of contact
  • Continuation of critical business operations

Q: What are other considerations?

A: There are several:

  • Masks do not necessarily inhibit the spread of CoV. Per WHO and CDC, masks need only be used by uninfected individuals when caring for a person suspected to have CoV and are only effective when used with other preventative measures (e.g., washing your hands). Masks are more effectively used by those showing symptoms of CoV and who are actively coughing and sneezing. See WHO’s mythbusting advice for an analysis of other purported treatments and preventative measures.
  • China is not the only country affected by CoV. While CoV was first reported in China, and most documented infections and deaths have occurred in China, CoV has spread to all continents (except Antarctica).
  • It is safe to receive a letter or package from China, as CoV has "poor survivability" on surfaces.
  • Antibiotics work against bacteria, not against viruses such as CoV.
  • While older people and those with certain medical conditions (e.g., asthma) are more susceptible to severe symptoms, CoV can affect people of all ages.
  • Coronaviruses are not in any way related to Corona beer. Seriously.