The past few weeks have been full of stress-inducing news. From the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) to a falling stock market to another violent workplace shooting, employers and employees alike are concerned about their health, safety, and well-being.
There is no question that in the face of all that is happening in the world and the speed at which the situation keeps changing, it is challenging not to worry. But, for those who are in the position as organizational leaders, managers or HR professionals, there is a critical role to be played during challenging times.
Staying abreast of the current issues by relying upon reputable sources can help to avoid the dreaded panic mode. In terms of COVID-19, we recommend referring to the Centers for Disease Control. In particular, take some time to read the Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), February 2020. There is a wealth of helpful information here, and through other expert sources, that can be utilized to make important organizational decisions and/or potentially distribute to your employees.
What legal issues can arise from COVID-19 in the workplace? Many employers have concerns regarding employees travelling out of the country. Those employers should check the CDC's website regarding those countries that may listed as "Warning Level 3," meaning that travelers should avoid all non-essential travel. If an employee voluntarily chooses to visit one of these countries, the employer should encourage the employee to stay home upon return in accordance with CDC recommendations. Employers should make sure to apply this recommendation even-handedly.
What about employees who refuse to perform public-facing job duties or want to wear a surgical mask while doing so? Currently, there is no evidence that wearing a surgical mask prevents the transmission of COVID-19 and this is not a recommendation from the CDC. A surgical mask can prevent those already diagnosed from spreading the disease to others, however, if the employee is sick or has already been diagnosed, they presumably would not be at work.
With respect to generally performing job duties, the law states that an employee cannot refuse to perform job duties unless they have a fear of "death or serious physical harm." For example, requiring an employee to travel to China or Italy, or a salesperson to make a sales call to a hospital might meet this requirement.
However, the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is through basic hygiene practices. (Employers should consider making hand sanitizer and tissue more readily available than normal).
• Encourage employees to wash hands with soap and water frequently for at least 20 seconds (hand sanitizer is a good back up if soap and water is not available).
• Avoid contact with sick people, which can be done by encouraging sick employees to stay home. (Employers should review their sick leave policies and consider if they need to be more generous during the time of the spread of COVID-19. Allowing work from home, if not normally permitted, can be another limited option).
• Disinfect surfaces as frequently as possible.
This issue is, no doubt, continuing to develop. Employers should check the CDC's website on a regular basis and remember that the above is basic advice. Always check with your employment law attorney to receive information regarding your specific situation. And, as an organizational leader, our best advice is to stay calm, use reputable sources for current information, and communicate with your team as often as necessary. If you need additional resources on the coronavirus, you can access them at www.hrsource.org or contact our team at 1-800-448-4584.
• Mary Lynn Fayoumi is president and CEO, and Kelly Hayden, J.D., is chief legal counsel of HR Source, a human resources services agency based in Downers Grove.