The coronavirus -- named COVID-19 -- outbreak situation changes by the hour. Employers should carefully review their strategies, policies and procedures to ensure their business and employees are prepared to respond.
COVID-19 spreads largely through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing, and it seems to spread easily. It may also be possible to become infected by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching one's nose or mouth.
The outbreak presents exceptional circumstances. This is not business as usual. Employers of all sizes should develop plans to maintain continuity of business operations and ensure the safety of employees and customers in the event of a further escalation.
A Pandemic Plan
As an employer, are you ready for the escalation of this virus outbreak? Can your company operate with widespread absenteeism? Are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties? Consider the following:
- Review current human resources policies, protocols and procedures in reference to communicable disease management.
- The likelihood that increasing numbers of employees will be unable to work either because they are sick or must care for others means that companies should review their paid time off and sick leave policies now.
- Policies that give employees confidence that they will not be penalized and can afford to take sick leave are an important tool in encouraging self-reporting and reducing potential exposure.
- Most employers will treat COVID-19 in their policies as they would any other illness, and sick leave or short-term disability insurance would be applicable. However, a plan should be developed for prolonged absences lasting longer than available sick leave.
- Place educational posters in key areas (especially during flu season) and provide hand gels, tissues, etc.
- Consider a "COVID-19 handshake protocol," as it's sensible to avoid shaking hands entirely to reduce the risk of spreading infection. Though that might be awkward at times, it's an increasingly common practice in hospitals and clinics.
- Communicate a protocol informing employees to stay home or go home if they have symptoms of coronavirus infection. Dedicated staff often resist taking sick days, instead dragging themselves into work where they may infect others. Given the threat this epidemic presents, managers should encourage employees who present with COVID-19 symptoms to go home. Employees or visitors who are symptomatic or at high risk for COVID-19 should be kept separate from staff and helped with arrangements to leave the workplace and obtain medical evaluation while minimizing their public exposure. For example, they should avoid public places and public transportation, and, ideally, should stay six feet away from others unless they are wearing a mask.
- With respect to travel, public health organizations recommend that companies bar employees or visitors from coming to the workplace for a period 14 days after a "medium" or "high-risk" exposure to the virus — generally meaning having been in close contact with someone who is known to be infected, or having traveled from a high-risk region. (For more, see the CDC's "Guidance for Risk Assessment.").
- Provide oversight to ensure that Chinese employees or Americans of Chinese origin are not discriminated against in the fervor to prevent the spread or contraction of this disease especially in light of two federal laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Consider a policy to ban all non-essential business travel. Companies should track the CDC Travel Health Notices and the State Department Travel Advisories to determine what business travel should be canceled or postponed. The CDC currently recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran.
- With respect to cancelling conferences and meetings, keep up to date with local health departments which will issue guidance about whether events should be canceled in a specific area. All conference organizers should provide information on reducing the chance of infection (including discouraging handshaking) and to assure that proper handwashing facilities (and/or hand sanitizers) are easily available.
- Consider training managers to have access to appropriate information (such as on infection control and company policies) and should know who to contact at the company to report exposures. Managers or other designated persons in the company should promptly notify local public health authorities about any suspected exposure. A web search for "local health department" and postal code or city or county name will generally yield accurate contact information. In the US, managers can also contact the CDC with questions about coronavirus. (Also, see the CDC's "Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers" here.)
Communication of a Company Pandemic Plan
- Review internal and external communication measures. Communication is critical to ensure everyone knows what is happening, reduce anxiety and continue business operations.
- Provide an informal orientation to educate employees on the function and processes of the plan.
- Consider providing information and advisory to employees via hotlines, websites or text message system alerts.
- Dangerous rumors and worker fears can spread as quickly as a virus. It is imperative for companies to be able to reach all workers, including those not at the worksite, with regular, internally coordinated, factual updates about infection control, symptoms, company policy regarding remote work, and circumstances in which employees might be excluded from the workplace. These communications should come from management who is watching for updated news about the virus. The communication should be carefully coordinated to avoid inconsistent policies being communicated by different managers or functions. This requires employers to maintain current phone/text and email contact information for all employees and test organization-wide communication periodically. If you don't have a current, universal contact capability already, now is a good time to create this.
- If remote working is an option, check with all employees to confirm they have what they need to work from home.
- If you are a large employer, consider a full-scale exercise where personnel, equipment and resources are deployed to speciﬁc locations and/or work from home for a real-time simulation.