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Best Practices for Employers Handling Coronavirus in the Workplace

March 12, 2020
Michael R. Miller and Emily E. Mahler
Posted in: Labor & Employment

Coronavirus disease, also known as COVID-19, is a global concern that is raising numerous legal issues new to many employers. Businesses are being impacted in various ways, including employees who are exposed or get sick themselves, or decreases in demand that can necessitate a decrease in workforce. Margolis Edelstein has already begun assisting employers who are working to develop appropriate and available responses to these concerns and others related to Coronavirus and provided below is some general advice to consider.

At this time, there is no legal obligation to shut down operations or your physical location. Employee requests to work remotely or be absent out of generalized fear of catching the virus need not be granted unless that employee has an underlying health condition that could leave him/her more susceptible to serious conditions from the virus. In that scenario employers should handle the request to stay home as a request for reasonable accommodation, utilizing and engaging in the interactive process as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”).

Circumstances may change if an employee discloses that he or she has been diagnosed with coronavirus, or if the individual has been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) does have a general duty clause which requires employers to take active steps upon known exposure of a communicable disease to protect its workforce. However, as of this writing, neither Pennsylvania nor OSHA has put forward a State Plan as to how private industry employers should respond in such a situation.

Until the appropriate State Plans are enacted, at minimum, Margolis Edelstein has recommended that employers tell the employee to self-quarantine and not report to work for at least 14 days. Additionally, employees should be notified of the possible exposure, but the quarantined employee’s identity should remain anonymous in consideration of HIPAA regulations. The employer should also consider closing the workplace until a professional cleaning agency is able to sanitize the work area. In Pennsylvania, employees may be eligible for unemployment compensation upon a temporary furlough or reduction in work hours or salary, provided the employee meets all other conditions of eligibility for unemployment compensation.

This leads to the most common advice to all employers: in the preventive stages, employers should immediately post signage reminding everyone to take common sense steps to limit exposure. The signage should remind employees to regularly wash their hands, keep a reasonable distance from large groups, and to stay home and not report to work if feeling any signs of illness.

We welcome your further inquiries.