An Employer’s Guide to Navigating the Coronavirus

Gusto Editors

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus, or COVID-19, has been detected in 90 locations around the world, including the US.  

While the scale of the coronavirus outbreak seems daunting, it’s important to remember that we’ve seen similar global pandemics over the past two decades, most notably SARS and swine flu. As with each previous global outbreak, calmness and preparation can help minimize the impact.

Small employers particularly should err on the side of caution. We consulted our community of employment law, HR, and small business experts, and they recommend taking action in three areas:  

  1. Fulfill your legal requirements as a business.
  2. Take measures to help protect your community and workplace from the spread of the virus.
  3. Build trust with customers through good health practices and up-to-date communication.

Read on for more info on how to do each. But remember, this is general guidance and not legal advice. We recommend you reach out to a lawyer or HR specialist for questions on how your business can best respond to the current situation. 

Legal requirements 

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued any new regulations related to COVID-19, several clauses remain relevant in this situation. Remember also to regularly check into OSHA’s COVID-19 page, as this is a rapidly changing situation. 

Here is a list of legal obligations employers should consider:

Make sure your workplace is safe for employees.

Broadly, OSHA states that it is an employer’s responsibility to provide a workplace that is safe and free from known hazards. Usually, this comes up more in the context of exposure to occupational chemicals or bloodborne pathogens (especially for healthcare workers), but infectious diseases like the coronavirus pose risks to workers, too.

There is no specific OSHA standard covering COVID-19, but some OSHA requirements may apply when it comes to preventing exposure to the coronavirus in your workplace. For example:

  • The General Duty Clause requires employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
  • OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards require the use of gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection—which comes with a lot of its own requirements.

The closest analogy is probably a widespread flu outbreak, which OSHA has established guidance on in the past. Coronavirus is somewhat different and still less understood, but their recommendations can be useful to keep your workplace “safe” in the eyes of the law:

  • Promote personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and disposable wipes for employees to clean their work surfaces.
  • Educate on prevention. Provide employees with up-to-date info on coronavirus risk factors and protective behaviors, like cough etiquette and symptom assessment.
  • Minimize exposure. Consider ways to minimize physical contact between employees and with clients or customers, such as email, web conferencing, and telecommuting. Schedule work tasks in ways that decrease the likelihood of exposure. Reschedule, postpone, or consider making all-hands meetings and events virtual. Encourage ill employees to stay at home without fear of any reprisals.
  • Issue travel guidance. Pause non-essential travel to places with high illness transmission rates.

Abide by federal and state leave requirements.

If a worker is seriously ill as a result of the coronavirus, they may be eligible for leave (paid or unpaid) under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The law requires most companies with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave every 12 months. Similarly, leave to care for a family member who is seriously ill as a result of the coronavirus may be FMLA-qualifying.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and comparable state laws could also come into play if illness or incapacitation related to the coronavirus rises to the level of a protected disability.

Follow your existing policies for granting leave to your team, but brush up on FMLA and ADA requirements, as well as your local leave legislation so you’re prepared should your team need to take extended time off.

It’s important to note here that the CDC recommends that you don’t ask employees for a doctor’s note to approve their sick leave request, as medical offices are likely overwhelmed.

Please note: Health care professionals recommend that you don’t walk into a hospital or medical office if you think you have the coronavirus.

If you or a team member want to see a healthcare provider, call ahead to let them know you’re coming and that you’ve potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. You can also request a mask be brought to you before you enter the hospital to reduce the risk of infecting other patients.

Keep discrimination out of your guidance.

While it is crucial to share policy updates with your team that reflect current safety concerns, it’s also important to take care to prevent any xenophobic behavior or discrimination that may arise from the global nature of this virus.

Any instruction you issue relating to travel should align with CDC recommendations, be consistently applied, grounded in reason, and be related ONLY to travel (rather than race, age, or country of origin). For example:

  • OK: All workers who have traveled to China, Iran, Italy, or South Korea since X date must work from home until X date. 
  • Not OK: All workers of Chinese/Iranian/Italian/Korean descent must work from home until X date.
  • Also not OK: All workers over the age of 70 or pregnant workers must work from home until further notice. (You cannot discriminate based on protected category status, even if you are motivated by a sincere desire to protect vulnerable workers.) 

Keep a record of any team members who contract the coronavirus.

OSHA requires that employers record certain work-related injuries or illnesses. COVID-19 is a recordable illness when an employee contracts it on the job, so OSHA may request your records in future. To stay compliant, make sure you fulfill OSHA’s record-keeping forms and requirements

However, it might be difficult to determine exactly where or when a worker contracted the virus—whether they picked it up at work or elsewhere. (This is important because you’re NOT required to record the case if the transmission happened outside of the workplace.) Notify your local health department if a team member is infected.

BUT make sure you maintain employees’ privacy.

Several federal regulations (HIPAA, FMLA, and ADA, to name a few) generally require employers to keep workers’ confidential medical info private from anyone not involved in their care—and this still applies during a public health emergency.

If someone on your team is infected with or has been exposed to COVID-19, don’t announce to your business, community, or media that “John Smith was sent home for coronavirus.” Also avoid mentioning a nameless employee in so-and-so department if it’s obvious who the employee is. Your local health department can help you make the necessary workplace notifications while complying with privacy laws.

Ensure unemployment compliance.

If you need to shut down your business or lay off numerous workers as a result of the coronavirus, you may be subject to federal or state WARN laws requiring you to provide advance notice. Consult a legal advisor if you’re unsure which rules may apply to you. 

What to do if an employee has been exposed to the coronavirus 

If you or one of your employees ends up being diagnosed with or exposed to the coronavirus, we recommend being swift, conservative, and non-punitive (e.g., don’t start docking pay) in your response.

  • Step 1: Send them home immediately. Employees diagnosed with the coronavrius or exhibiting known symptoms, such as respiratory illness, fever, cough, or shortness of breath, should be sent home and encouraged to self-isolate.
  • Step 2: Separate exposed workers. Before they leave, ask the infected employee for names of anyone who worked in close physical proximity to them, and ask those team members to work remotely as well.
  • Step 3: Notify the people you work with—sensitively. Inform your team of their possible exposure to the coronavirus, but avoid sharing any private information. Tell the rest of your employees to check for coronavirus symptoms and to contact their healthcare provider in case they want to get assessed for potential exposure. Also notify any potentially exposed vendors, customers, or clients—again, while maintaining confidentiality.
  • Step 4: Record the diagnosis per OSHA’s instructions.
  • Step 5: Keep inquiries to a minimum. Limit the amount of personal information you ask from employees. You can encourage—but not require—them to contact the local health department. You also can’t ask them to get tested or to measure their body temperature.
  • BONUS: Make a payment plan for hourly workers. Depending on your existing policies and applicable local laws, you need to figure out how and when to pay nonexempt employees who are sent home. If your policy is not to pay in this situation, employees may resist going home or try to hide symptoms. This is not the behavior you want to encourage. 

Protect against spread 

In addition to the above, the CDC has issued a list of strategies for businesses to follow. These are not legal requirements but can help businesses prevent the spread of the virus in their communities.

Separate sick employees from other workers and customers.

Instruct employees to stay home if they have a fever (100.4° F or higher), signs of a fever, or any other symptoms of respiratory illness. Ensure that they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours without the use of medication before they come back to work. Encourage employees who are sick to take the appropriate time to rest, recover, and return to health. 

If employees come to work displaying symptoms of respiratory illness or start showing signs during the workday, keep them separate from other team members and customers, and have them return home right away.

The CDC also recommends that employees with family members who have been diagnosed with the illness conduct a risk assessment for potential exposure and self-isolate as needed. 

Flex your sick policies to promote health and safety.

Make staying home when sick the rule, and ensure that employees can take enough sick leave to safely prevent the spread of the virus. Waive the doctor’s note. Allow employees to stay at home to care for family members who are sick (again, FMLA or a similar state or local law may legally mandate this). Ensure that vendors or staffing agencies are also asking sick employees to stay home.

Emphasize hygiene.

Increase both routine and deep cleaning of your workplace, especially all frequently touched surfaces like countertops and doorknobs. Make tissues, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, disposable wipes, and no-touch disposal bins readily available. Share guidance on proper handwashing as well as cough and sneeze etiquette. Provide additional office supplies (notepads, pens, etc.) to discourage sharing among workers. 

Provide travel guidance.

Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest list of locations with a risk of coronavirus exposure, and ask employees traveling from affected areas to stay at home for 14 days. If employees do travel, advise them to monitor for symptoms of respiratory illness and to notify you if they get sick. Put a hold on any non-essential work-related trips.

Make a communication plan.

Coronavirus is a morale issue almost as much as it’s a public health one. Educate employees as appropriate and tamp down any unhelpful panic or misinformation that may be circulating.

Check in with your team to understand their questions and concerns, and think through what information would help them feel safe. Provide regular updates as the situation evolves or the actions you are taking change.  

It also goes both ways. Make it easy for your employees to notify you if they or someone they know contracts the virus by providing a direct email or phone number for those updates.

The most important thing is to deliver messages with positivity, calm emotions, and empathy to help dispel any anxiety. Forbes shares more advice on how to lead your team through the pandemic effectively.

Create a remote work policy

Some companies have already encouraged their teams to work remotely, and many workers may have to if young kids are home due to school or childcare facility closures. While employers are not legally required to permit remote work in this situation, it would be a good idea to do so.

If you don’t have a remote work policy, here’s where you can start:

  1. First, map out who on your team can or can’t work remotely. Can you provide the tools necessary for tasks to be completed remotely or shift their workload to non-location-based tasks?
  2. Next, audit your hardware and software to ensure employees have access to what they need to do their jobs. Also consider having someone ready to help with IT issues.
  3. Finally, think about how you’ll communicate, hold meetings, and monitor performance, and make a plan to share with your team. This can help you stay on the same page even if you’re not working side by side.

Build trust with customers

Customers will naturally be anxious about minimizing exposure to the virus. Once you’ve done all you can to prevent the spread, the best thing you can do is reassure customers that your business is acting responsibly. Here are some actions to consider: 

Let customers know you’re being safe.

If you have a physical location, consider putting up signs or emailing customers letting them know about enhanced hygiene measures that you’re undertaking. You could also let them know that you’ve asked all sick employees to stay home.

Be hygiene ready.

As with employees, make hand sanitizer, masks, and tissues readily available. And consider other measures unique to your business. For example, like Costco, your bakery may want to hold off on free samples until the virus is contained.

Encourage e-communication.

If applicable, let customers know that they can connect with your business via phone, email, or website rather than in-person during this time. You can send a proactive email with information on how they can stay in touch and still receive your services. 

Bonus: Prep for economic uncertainty

A general slowdown in spending could impact your business. Here are some tips on how to weather some of that turbulence.

Plan for workforce and supply chain interruptions. 

Disruptions to your workforce and supply chains are two of the most evident effects of a pandemic like the coronavirus. So, start by identifying essential business functions, jobs or roles, and critical elements within your supply chain that are required to “keep the doors open.”

Document a business continuity plan; this is a plan for how your business will operate if there are broader implications of the issue, like increasing absenteeism or supply chain interruptions. Areas such as inventory, suppliers, employees, subcontractor services and products, and overall business logistics may all be impacted.

Speaking of inventory, don’t forget to increase or decrease your quantity counts now in case your supply chain is affected in either direction.

Communicate your plans. 

Share your updated business continuity plans with other businesses in your local community and networks, especially those in your supply chain. This can include chambers of commerce and trade associations. Circulating your plans may help improve community response efforts. 

Stay updated. 

Keep up with legislation and funding proposals aimed at providing help to small businesses, such as the small business loan offering proposed recently in Congress.  

Keep prepping your taxes.

According to the IRS, tax season is due to continue unchanged for now—but keep an eye out for updates, and don’t wait till the last second to file tax-related documents in case things change.

UPDATE (3/12/20): The Trump administration has announced plans to delay the April 15 tax deadline for most individuals and small businesses. The delay has not been confirmed yet, but officials expect a quick decision as the move does not need Congressional approval. Stay tuned for more information.

Additional reading and resources

The coronavirus outbreak is an ongoing, evolving situation—and new information becomes available almost daily. We’ll keep this section updated with the most helpful resources for business owners that we come across: 

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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