When it comes to COVID-19, clients are interested in not only protecting their employees, but also have concerns about how to handle business disruptions. When it comes to protecting their workforce, most employers want to know how much they can inquire about an employee’s health and whether they can require an employee to stay home. Another concern is whether an employer can require an employee that recently visited an affected region to stay home for a period of time. Based upon guidance from the Equal Opportunity Employment Council, an employer may send employees home if they display symptoms of illness during seasonal influenza or similar illnesses like COVID-19. Employers are also permitted to ask an employee if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms when they make a determination on whether to send an employee home or allow one to return to work. It is also reasonable for employers to require an employee that recently traveled to a COVID-19 affected area to stay home for several days until it is clear they are not experiencing symptoms of illness.
Common sense is an employer’s best defense to protecting its workforce. Appoint an employee(s) to be the point person for receiving and disseminating workplace information regarding COVID-19. Emphasize the importance of staying home when an employee feels ill. Employees who come in close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 should be encouraged to notify their supervisor for a risk assessment. Be flexible with leave policies and ensure they are up to date with public health guidelines. If possible, encourage employees to stay home when they are ill by offering a limited number of paid days off work or other incentive. Provide soap, sanitation wipes, and hand sanitizer for employees to use in the workplace. Clean all surfaces touched in the workplace daily.
When it comes to commercial issues, businesses may face incoming or outgoing delivery delays, higher prices, and other supply chain issues. Businesses may in turn have difficulty meeting their own contractual requirements or ensuring that their vendors and others meet their contractual obligations to the client. Businesses should be understanding and fair in these instances. In such situations, businesses should carefully examine their applicable contracts for proper and available remedies and/or to ensure that they meet all of their obligations in such situations including complying with any applicable notice provisions. Businesses may also question the safety of products coming from China. When presented with such questions, we have advised that the latest CDC information provide that there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted via imported goods, but that they should refer to the CDC for more or changing information.
Margaret Loveman is an attorney with Butler Snow in the firm’s Labor and Employment and Commercial Litigation practice groups. She regularly counsels businesses in the aspects of employment law, as well as contractual business disputes.