As of March 2, the novel coronavirus has now spread to approximately 59 countries and over 87,000 people around the world are estimated to be infected with the disease. The real numbers are likely much higher, due to the incubation period during which few, if any symptoms may present, and because testing kits have only recently become available.
Fortunately, the virus, which started in Wuhan City, China, presents mild symptoms in about 81% of those infected. Unfortunately, for a small percentage it can be severe, and even fatal. As of March 2, one woman in San Antonio who had traveled to Wuhan, China, has been tested positive for the virus and is in quarantine. Several others are also being monitored.
At this stage, no doubt your company is actively monitoring the situation, staying abreast of national, state, and local cases of the outbreak, and getting government advice for protecting employees. Here are five key steps to take next:
- Communicate What Your Company Is Doing to Protect Employees
Communicate what your company is doing to protect the health and safety of employees, visitors, partners, and customers. Provide advice for duration and frequency of handwashing, caution employees against touching their faces, and note the available facilities. At this point, you may also consider installing hand sanitizing stations.
If the situation changes nationally, in DFW, or within the company, keep employees apprised of all new developments. Inform employees that risk assessments are taking place, and provide guidance on what they should do if they are feeling symptoms, or if they notice other employees that are exhibiting symptoms.
Finally, present your sick policy with regard to a possible outbreak to your employees, along with resources from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for learning more about what they can do to protect themselves (see step 3 below).
- Put a Work-from-Home Contingency Infrastructure in Place
Though a scenario in which a local breakout that causes employees to stay home en masse is unlikely, it should be planned for so as to minimize business disruption. Fortunately many workers are already able to work from home, when necessary, so this may or may not require a lot of planning. In planning, make sure there are enough laptops, VPN devices, printers, and any other role-specific technologies (such as phone systems for receptionists and customer support staff) to support work for all of your units that must remain operational. Account for your bring your own device (BYOD) policy, as well as the handling of sensitive data, so that a pandemic doesn’t lead to a data security disaster.
- Actively Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home
The CDC recommends that once employees have symptoms of acute respiratory illness, they should know the company wants them to stay home until they are free of fever and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever and symptom-reducing medicines.
If an employee is identified as presenting symptoms at work, such as shortness of breath, the employee should be separated and sent home immediately. While still in the building, they should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue while coughing or sneezing.
If an employee is not sick or showing symptoms, but has a sick family member at home dignosed with COVID-19, notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
Finally, if an employee is diagnosed, employers should inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace while maintaining the confidentiality required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
- Keep the Facilities Clean
At this point, the CDC isn’t recommending specific cleaning protocols or cleaning agents, but this may change, so stay abreast of any changes on the CDC website. The current recommendation is routine cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace. If your cleaning staff cleans bathrooms and common areas, but workers perform their own workstation maintenance, communicate that they should clean their areas (including door knobs, keyboards, and desks) frequently, and provide disposable wipes for the purpose.
- Consider Paying Employees, Even if They Are Hourly Wage Earners
The last thing your company wants is for employees who think they might be infected not to get diagnosed, or not to share their diagnosis for fear of missing paychecks. A single employee making an ill-advised decision under this scenario could be catastrophic for other employees and the organization. Therefore, even though employers are not legally obligated to pay self-isolating workers who may not be sick (or in some cases may not be legally obligated to pay even if they are sick), it makes sense as a precaution against the spread of the disease to reward conscientious and considerate employees.
The U.S. has effectively handled outbreaks in recent history, and we should be confident that the coronavirus will be brought under control. Employers have a vital role to play, and HR professionals should stay tuned daily to the news and to the CDC for breaking information and advice.