Washington employers are faced with the challenging task of providing a safe and healthy work environment for their employees as the risk of exposure to the new coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to increase. As with any serious public health threat, issues related to COVID-19 are rapidly evolving and best practices for the workplace will continue to develop as conditions change. Employers should carefully monitor the updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the Washington State Department of Health and local health authorities.
There are some practical steps employers can take to address potential issues related to COVID-19:
Encourage Healthy Practices
The CDC recently issued interim guidance for businesses and employers to respond to the virus. The CDC’s recommendations include encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently, practice good respiratory hygiene, and stay home if they are sick or have been exposed to the virus. If an employee exhibits symptoms of COVID-19, including fever or respiratory illness (e.g., coughing, shortness of breath) in the workplace, the employee should be immediately sent home and instructed not to return to work until the employee has been symptom free for at least 24 hours.
Clean and Disinfect the Workplace
Employers should have ample supplies of hand sanitizer and surface wipes available for employee use and encourage employees to clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in the workplace.
Review Policies and Establish Protocols
Employers should review workplace policies to ensure the company’s sick leave, paid time off and other policies are flexible and comply with federal, state and local laws. The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has published information on common issues employers face when responding to COVID-19, including issues related to wage and hour laws and job-protected leaves of absence.
Employees should generally be allowed to use available paid sick leave during COVID-19 related absences, including absence related to illness or in connection with school or day care closures due to COVID-19. Additionally, employers should consider allowing employees to use other paid leave benefits (e.g., PTO, vacation leave) to cover any such absences. Employees may also qualify for Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits if the employee contracts COVID-19 and takes time off work. Washington State’s Employment Security Department has more information about these benefits on its COVID-19 resource page, including a helpful chart describing certain situations employees may be entitled to benefits in connection with COVID-19.
Employers may also consider developing an infectious disease protocol, compliant with applicable health and safety laws and regulations. Any such plan could be used to communicate important health and safety information to their employees, including reminders about the importance of remaining home when sick, the applicable procedures for calling in to report absences, and designate points of contact in the event of an employee exposure (or suspected exposure) to the virus.
Flexible Work Options
Employers may elect to offer employees flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting where appropriate. However, employers should carefully consider the potential risks and benefits before offering these types of arrangements as doing so may establish precedent for other work-from-home requests and future requests for accommodation in the form of remote work.
The COVID-19 outbreak implicates potentially complicated issues for Washington employers. MPBA’s employment attorneys are following information related to the virus closely and can provide recommendations and best practices for dealing with COVID-19 issues in the workplace. Please contact Tammy Roe or Sara Campbell with questions or for more information on these emerging issues.