By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing

Employers have a duty to keep their workers safe. In the case of a global pandemic, that duty extends to qualifying the health of employees who may be recovering from COVID-19. How long before they’re allowed to return to work? What special precautions, if any, do you need to take to protect the health and wellness of other employees?

The solution seems like a simple one: require a physician sign-off before returning to work. But that begets at a bigger question: Can employers require a doctors’ note from employees who test positive for COVID-19?

This question is the inverse of a common criteria for missing work for an extended period. Most workplaces require a physician’s note for short- or long-term disability. We’ve rarely had cause to wonder if employers can require a doctor’s note to return to work.

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The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has thankfully stepped in to provide guidance in this matter.

Can employers require a doctor’s note for COVID-19 patients?

Yes, employers can require a physician to sign-off before allowing an employee to return to work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) evaluated and how such a policy interacts with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other employee rights legislation.

The EEOC ruled that requiring employees to present a clean bill of health before returning to work does not violate workers’ rights because it’s a matter of public safety, not individual ability or disability. The agency outlined this guidance in a communication titled, What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.

Acceptable forms of a “doctors’ note”

Physicians are understandably overwhelmed, even if the imminent threat of coronavirus is passing in their communities. They may not have the time to evaluate every patient thoroughly or write out personal health clearance letters. Recovering employees may be stuck between appointment backlogs and the inability to return to work without a physician’s approval.

Do employees need to get a doctor’s note clearing them of COVID-19? If their physician simply doesn’t have time—or they don’t see a regular primary care physician—employees can and should seek alternative forms of health clearance. Employers need to make authorized forms of clearance known, including:

  • Certified form letters from clinics and physician offices
  • Authorization emails direct from physicians’ offices
  • Phone calls from GPs or PAs on behalf of the employee

Keep the objective in mind: You want an employee to return to work as soon as possible, but only if they’re certifiably healthy. If they’ve recently battled a highly contagious virus, it’s not unwarranted to ask a physician to evaluate their recovery. How that physician provides clearance shouldn’t matter. What matters is your employee is healthy and no longer contagious.

Plan for contingencies

What happens when a physician doesn’t take the time to provide a note? What about employees who don’t have a regular GP or who can’t schedule a fitness-for-work evaluation? Employers need to plan for these events, so they don’t leave a healthy employee to languish at home. This involves a certain level of trust in your employee.

Ask recovering employees how long it’s been since they’ve exhibited symptoms. Are they running a fever or have a cough? Do they have lingering body aches or persistent lethargy? These are all symptoms of coronavirus and if they have them, it means they may not be fully recovered. Ask employees to remain at home until they’re free of symptoms for 10 days.

When they’re symptom-free for 10 days and ready to return to work, encourage once-ill employees to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and follow social distancing policies. You don’t want to brand them with a COVID-19 iron, but you want to make sure they’re not unwittingly spreading the virus if they’re still harboring it.

The good news is new guidance from the WHO shows only rare instances of transmission from asymptomatic carriers—which means your workforce is less at risk once someone stops showing symptoms.

Act with the safety of the workplace in mind

Requiring a doctor’s note to resume work after a positive COVID-19 test is a smart precaution to take. A physician’s evaluation will deem that person is fit for duty and ensure they’re not asymptomatic as they ease back into a social environment. It’s a precaution in favor of both the recovering individual and their peers.

Keep in mind that while employers can require a doctor’s note, there are broad complications that could prevent employees from handing in one. Create a simple process for gaining health clearance and plan for contingencies. The intent isn’t to bar employees from working—it’s to get them back to work as quickly and as safely as possible.

Keep reading: COVID-19 workplace management resources.

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