How to Avoid COVID-19 Workplace Violations

By Katherine Schwartz
Demand Generation Specialist

There’s much uncertainty surrounding employer liability when it comes to an employee who tests positive for COVID-19 due to workplace exposure. Employers are stuck in a tug-o-war match between state governments, the CDC, OSHA, and the federal government. Are employers liable for coronavirus spread among employees? How can you avoid COVID-19 workplace violations? What mandates govern the workplace right now?

While there’s little clarity, legal professionals have begun to provide best practices for employers to follow. While they’re only generalizations, they provide precedent-backed advice to protect employers from liabilities. Here’s a look at the best practices to avoid liability and COVID-19 workplace violations.

Consider your duty as an employer

Protocols specific to coronavirus may still be up in the air, but there are plenty of workplace-specific standards from OSHA to abide by in these unprecedented times. Specifically, as it relates to the duty to provide a safe workplace. Several states have also released specific OSHA supplements for operating a safe workplace during the pandemic (ex. New York). The chief precedents employers need to focus on include:

It all boils down to an employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace, proper protective equipment, and the means for employees to feel safe while on the job. While there’s general uncertainty and trepidation surrounding this unprecedented pandemic, employer efforts should still emphasize these essential duties.

Contact tracing and exposure notification

Under current guidelines, employers need to act reasonably in the event of a confirmed case of coronavirus. As governing bodies strive to implement contact tracing methods to reduce the spread of coronavirus, employers play a role. Workplaces need a method to register a positive COVID-19 diagnosis and alert employees who may have had contact with this person—all in a way that protects privacy.

Excluding infected employees and recommending self-quarantine for possible exposure can mitigate employers of any liability associated with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace. In addition, report all confirmed cases that involve hospitalization within 24 hours.

Responsible testing and self-screening

According to CDC and OSHA guidelines, employers can mandate both COVID-19 tests and self-screening for employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided new guidance related to coronavirus in April, which says employers can employ tests and self-screening methods that are “accurate and reliable, administered in a manner consistent with business necessity.”

Be aware that, in most cases, this is an all-or-nothing decision on the part of employers. The requirement that some employees self-screen or submit to a test and not others could infringe on workplace equality. Employers who can demonstrate legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for testing a particular group of employees may do so, but should prepare to provide justification.

Non-discriminatory policy changes

Many employers have adapted policy changes to account for COVID-19. This includes work-from home policies, as well as physical workplace policies and those that govern employee responsibilities. While these changes are proactive, make sure they’re not discriminatory.

Employers can’t make new policies that discriminate based on age, race, gender, etc. For example, furloughing only staff above a certain age violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act—even if it’s meant to protect their health. Instead, consider how to enable at-risk staff constructively. In this example, something like a telecommuting policy would not be discriminatory, since it does not prohibit individuals from gainful employment.

Be mindful of both the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act as you consider policy changes.

Paid sick leave and FFCRA

Employers will likely face questions from employees regarding sick leave, FMLA, and other illness-related absences during the pandemic. It’s the responsibility of employers to provide accurate and timely information for individuals, so they can get the leave and pay they’re entitled to.

The nuances of paid sick leave due to COVID-19-related circumstances are spelled out thoroughly in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and in materials distributed by the U.S. DOL. Employers need to stay apprised of the differences between FMLA and FFCRA, and what situations constitute qualified medical leave. This includes distinguishing between full- and part-time employees, self- and physician-mandated quarantines, and no-fault attendance policies.

Do your best to be a responsible employer

The lack of clear, unified insight on employer liability makes it difficult to know how to best operate during the pandemic. All you can do is act in accordance with recognized CDC and OSHA standards. As these organizations scramble to provide updated guidance and codes, employers need to be proactive in protecting themselves and their employees.

Adjust your current policies to accommodate coronavirus concerns. Stay up-to-date with the best health advice from reputable organizations. Keep apprised of what other companies in your industry are doing to combat liability. Above all, document your efforts and act with integrity, putting the health and wellness of employees first.

Keep Reading: Latest Workplace Covid-19 Resources


COVID-19 Workplace Health Screening Questions

By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing

Whether your workplace is essential or is only now resuming operation after a state-mandated shutdown, workplace concerns about coronavirus remain high. The more in-house employees you have, the more concern there is about transmission. For employers and employees alike, this concern is valid. It’s why every workplace needs clear protocols for COVID-19 workplace health screening.

The good news is screening employees for coronavirus is as simple as asking a few questions. We know enough about the virus and its symptoms to make smart decisions when welcoming employees back to the workplace… or asking them to stay home. Use the following questions to put together a simple, yet effective, self-screening process to protect your workplace and employees. Use this screening process every day—regardless of how many employees you’re welcoming back to work.

In the past 24 hours, have you experienced X?

Hallmark symptoms of coronavirus are easy to spot—especially when they occur in tandem. Ask employees to perform a self-check before they come to work each day and gauge a yes or no answer about any of the following symptoms:

  • A fever of 100°F or higher
  • A subjective fever (felt feverish)
  • Cough (excluding known conditions like COPD)
  • Shortness of breath (excluding known conditions like asthma)
  • Sore or swollen throat
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Anosmia (loss of smell)

If they’ve developed any of these symptoms within the last 24 hours, urge employees to stay home. Fever, combined with throat tightness or trouble breathing, warrants immediate medical attention. Instruct employees to visit their primary care physician as soon as possible and stay isolated until they can.

As you ask employees to assess themselves each day, also be aware of psychosomatic symptoms. There’s a difference between general lethargy on a Monday and feeling feverish. Encourage employees to assess their symptoms through a quantifiable lens—use a thermometer, document a cough, feel swollen glands, etc. If they feel symptoms warrant staying home, make sure they seek medical attention. Employers need to trust employees to act in the best interests of their health and the health of others.

What’s your current temperature?

The simplest way to make a decision about coming into work is for employees to take their temperature each day. A normal range is anything less than 100°F; above 100°F is cause for concern. Use this threshold as a clear decision-maker for whether to come to work or stay home.

Advise employees on how to properly take their temperature, and to take multiple readings for accuracy. Both oral and ear thermometers are acceptable methods of gauging temperature. Provide simple instructions for both.

  • Wait at least 30 minutes after eating or drinking to take temperature
  • Insert thermometer into ear or place under the tongue
  • Wait until thermometer beeps with a clear reading
  • Record temperature, wait two minutes, then repeat
  • Repeat 2-3 times to get an accurate reading

Employees don’t need to provide any record or log of their temperature for employers. They should simply be aware that feverish readings are cause to stay home and, if temperatures reach 102°F or more, they should seek medical attention.

Have you traveled recently?

With current travel restrictions and state lockdowns, this question is easy for many to answer. It’s unlikely they’ve traveled within the country, let alone internationally. That said, international travel for work is required of some individuals. If your company has any employees traveling abroad, this question becomes pertinent.

In accordance with CDC guidelines, anyone returning from international travel should self-quarantine for 14 days. This includes routine temperature checks. It’s best for employers to mandate work-from-home for these individuals, regardless of how they feel.

Have you had contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19?

Employees should avoid coming to work if they’ve had contact with anyone who’s tested positive for COVID-19—even if they themselves don’t test positive. As researchers learn more about the virus’s incubation period, it’s recommended you treat possible transmission like a positive diagnosis until proven otherwise by time. Tests can yield false negatives.

Before returning to work, employees should be at least 72 hours removed from contact, with multiple negative tests, and no symptoms. Many employers will want to wait a full week to be absolutely sure.

Simple questions lead to important answers

As they answer these self-screening questions before work each day, employees will feel a sense of calm. Not only will a self-screening reassure them of their own health, it shows them you as an employer have a preventive mindset.

In addition to self-screening protocols, be sure to create processes for employees who answer “yes” to any of the screening questions. Whether it’s a remote work arrangement or paid time off through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), next steps should be clear and decisive. This proactive stance will keep your workplace safe and your employees calm and confident.

Keep Reading: SpaceIQ’s COVID-19 Resource Page


COVID-19 and Employee Fear on Returning to the Workplace

By Nai Kanell
Chief Marketing Officer

Between stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, there’s understandable fear of public places during the COVID-19 pandemic. People don’t want to pick up the virus or risk transmitting it to others if they’re an asymptomatic carrier. Despite their avoidance of public places, many people face the prospect of a return to work soon. It’s cause for anxiety and trepidation. Employers need to make strides to proactively address COVID-19 and employee fear on returning to the workplace.

There are a lot of different opportunities for employers to quell fears about returning to the workplace. Even small reassurances go a long way. Here’s what companies can and should do to help mitigate coronavirus concerns as they welcome employees back to work.

Maintain optional remote work opportunities

Just because your city or state has lifted its stay-at-home order doesn’t mean you necessarily need to usher every employee back into the workplace. If your company has remote work protocols in-place, it’s not a bad idea to extend them—especially if employees demonstrated good productivity over the past weeks and months. Allowing employees to continue to work from home can be a goodwill gesture that shows you care.

For companies eager to bring employees back in-house, a hybrid schedule is a great compromise. Bring back your most essential teams, while allowing peripheral teams to telecommute for an extra week or two. Just be careful not to create division in your workplace. A simple solution is to offer an opt-in remote work policy. Employees with anxiety about a quick return can continue to work from home, while those eager to get back into a routine will gladly come to work.

Ease employees back into the workplace 

For larger workplaces, a slow return to work can mitigate employee anxiety in a big way. There are many ways to stagger a return to in-house work based on the flexibility of your workplace:

  • Bring back one department at a time over a multi-week timeline
  • Implement a hybrid work schedule—three days remote vs. two days in-house, or similar
  • Scale into capacity through a hybrid schedule, adding another in-house day each week
  • Stagger shifts or adopt first and second shift splits to mitigate workplace congestion

Even simple return to work policies can significantly reduce employee fears—for example, scheduling the first shifts back in-house on Thursday or Friday. It’s also smart to coordinate a brief reorientation period, to allow employees to reacclimate without the stress of a full workload.

Make a concerted effort to sanitize

The biggest fear employees have when returning to the workplace is exposure to COVID-19. They want some certainty that reentering a social environment won’t result in a coronavirus diagnosis. While there’s ultimately no guarantee, employers can make a show of sanitizing the workplace.

Create new policies around workplace sanitization and hygiene, and enforce them. Put up signage to remind employees of hand washing and respiratory etiquette. Ensure paper towel, tissue, soap, and hand sanitizer are readily available at key points in the workplace. Encourage employees to disinfect desks and other flat surfaces when they’re done with them.

In addition to these basic sanitization efforts, show employees you’re committed to cleanliness. Inform them of new sanitizing efforts by your janitorial team, or let them know you’ve scheduled more frequent deep cleanings. Employees shouldn’t just feel like they’re working in a clean space, they should know they are.

Open communication channels

Employees have questions and they’ll expect answers. It’s not enough to implement new policies or ease the return to in-house work; companies also need to open the lines of communication. Send out a company-wide memo or host an all-hands meeting and make it clear that your employees have a voice. Some simple suggestions include:

  • Hold a Q&A session where employees can ask questions
  • Provide an online form or portal where employees can voice concerns
  • Host one-on-ones with employees to gauge their feelings
  • Provide weekly emails or memos to keep employees informed

Some companies will opt for an open forum-style approach to communication, while others may offer anonymous feedback channels. Regardless of how your organization welcomes employee feedback, the important thing is that you listen to it and act accordingly.

Be aware of employee concerns and act accordingly

Every person is going to process the return to work differently. Address COVID-19 and employee fear on returning to the workplace on an individual basis as-needed. For some, a return to the workplace means a welcome return to normalcy; for others, it’s extremely stressful. Act in a responsible capacity and make concessions where possible.

A structured, organized return to work will yield best results. Don’t just open the doors and expect things to go back to normal. Make it clear your organization has a plan and execute that plan with an air of confidence and purpose. The smoother the transition, the better the results.

Keep Reading: COVID-19 Workplace Resource Page