By Anne McWilliams

In struggling to stay current on rapidly changing workplace rules and regulations in the midst of this pandemic, essential business operators need to address yet another new reality:  there is a good chance an employee will test positive for COVID-19, or has been exposed to someone suspected or confirmed with COVID-19. The CDC has issued guidance on these subjects. Below are checklists and recaps of good workplace safety practices, based on the CDC guidelines. Check your local government requirements that may supersede the CDC guidelines, like the new City of Los Angeles Worker Protection Order. This summary is based on current information, and the subject matter is developing and changing as this public health crisis unfolds.

What If An Employee Tests Positive For COVID-19

  • Immediately upon notice of a confirmed case, separate the employee from other employees and send the employee home, or instruct the employee to remain at home.
  • Notify all employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 and instruct them about how to proceed based on the CDC Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure. We recommend that you notify other employees in writing.
  • Maintain strict confidentiality of the infected employee’s name, symptoms and diagnosis, to ensure compliance with medical information privacy or disability discrimination laws.
  • Ask the infected employee who else he or she has come in contact with or worked in close proximity to (within a few feet) through or at work during the previous 14 days.
  • These employees may or may not be required to be sent home (based on the below 4/8/20 CDC guidelines). Speak with these employees on an individual basis and ask about their symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath, acute respiratory conditions), and take their temperature. Maintain confidentiality of all information disclosed to you by the employees.
  • Close the premises for cleaning and disinfecting pursuant to the guidelines of the CDC. The CDC recommends waiting 24 hours, if feasible, before cleaning and disinfecting.
  • After re-opening, regularly clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces and shared workplace areas, equipment and furniture, and maintain restrooms in a clean and sanitary condition, with sufficient supplies for good hand hygiene.
  • Take employees temperatures before they start their shift, and one additional time during their shift. This is paid time. Treat information on temperatures as confidential.
  • Provide employees with cloth-based covers and require employees to wear the covers over their mouth and nose at all times while working or on the work premises.
  • Employees who are observed to have acute respiratory illness symptoms should be sent home immediately. Reporting time pay may be triggered. Keep this information private.
  • Employees who feel sick or have symptoms of COVID-19 should be actively encouraged to go home. Reporting time pay may be triggered. Keep this information private.
  • Encourage employees to report symptoms of COVID-19. Do not disclose this information.
  • Implement protocols for employees to wash their hands with soap every 30 minutes, and require employees to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing and after using the restroom. This is paid time on the clock.
  • Implement a policy of physical distancing, as much as feasible given your operations, and find ways to create physical space to minimize close contact as much as possible.
  • Train employees and cleaning staff in conformity with the CDC guidelines, and maintain sufficient CDC-approved disinfecting supplies.
  • Educate and train employees on good hand hygiene, and regularly post or circulate information on how employees can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  • Any customer or visitor to the work premises must wear cloth-based covers over their mouths and face before entering the premises.

When an employee potentially contracts COVID-19 in the workplace, there is a potential workers’ compensation claim. Contact legal counsel if an employee claims he or she was infected on the job and files a workers’ compensation claim. COVID-19 is a recordable illness if the worker is infected on the job. If there is evidence that the employee contracted the virus in the workplace, contact legal counsel regarding possible OSHA reporting obligations.

What If An Employee Had Exposure to Someone With Confirmed or Suspected COVID-19?

On April 8, 2020, the CDC issued new guidance on employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, focusing on implementing precautionary measures in the workplace, rather than sending employees home for self-isolation, as was the practice previously. A potential exposure is either through contact with a household member with COVID-19, or having come within 6 feet of someone who has a confirmed or suspected case. The time frame for an employee’s contact with an individual includes the period of time of 48 hours before the individual became symptomatic.

The CDC advises that as long as the employee has no symptoms he or she should remain at work and adhere to the following practices prior to and during their work shift:

  • Pre-Screen: Employers should measure the employee’s temperature and assess symptoms prior to them starting work. Ideally, temperature checks should happen before the individual enters the facility.
  • Regular Monitoring: As long as the employee doesn’t have a temperature or symptoms, they should self-monitor under the supervision of their employer’s occupational health program.
  • Wear a Mask: The employee should wear a face mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after last exposure. Employers can issue facemasks or can approve employees’ supplied cloth face coverings in the event of shortages.
  • Social Distance: The employee should maintain 6 feet and practice social distancing as work duties permit in the workplace.
  • Disinfect and Clean work spaces: Clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment routinely.

If an employee becomes sick during the day, they should be sent home immediately. Surfaces in their workspace should be cleaned and disinfected. Prepare a list of persons who had contact with the ill employee during the time the employee had symptoms and 2 days prior to symptoms. Others at the facility with close contact within 6 feet of the employee during this time would be considered exposed.

Other Considerations:

  • Employees should not share headsets or other objects that are near mouth or nose.
  • Employers should increase the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces.
  • Employees and employers should consider pilot testing the use of face masks to ensure they do not interfere with work assignments.
  • Employers should work with facility maintenance staff to increase air exchanges in room.
  • Employees should physically distance when they take breaks together. Stagger breaks and don’t congregate in the break room, and don’t share food or utensils.
  • Provide disposable wipes, gloves, no-touch disposal trash cans and hand sanitizer for use by employees.

If employers opt to require employees to use face coverings, the employer should bear that cost, or alternatively reimburse the employee their cost. The CDC guidance does not mention gloves. Based on your business operations, it may be prudent to consider implementing a protocol that requires employees to wear gloves while performing their job duties and educate the employees on best practices on how to use and dispose of gloves.

Educate and train employees on good hand hygiene and how they can reduce the spread of COVID-19:

  • Post the CDC printable flyer in the workplace:
  • Post, circulate or email information advising any or all of the following:
    • Hand hygiene.
    • Cough and sneeze etiquette: cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash and immediately wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
    • Avoid close contact with sick persons.
    • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
    • Avoid sharing personal items with co-workers (i.e. dishes, cups, utensils, towels).
    • Avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible. If necessary, clean and disinfect them before and after use.
    • Follow the policies and procedures of your employer related to illness, cleaning and disinfecting, and work meetings and travel.
    • Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care.
    • Inform your supervisor if you have a sick family member at home with COVID-19.
    • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs. Dirty surfaces can be cleaned with soap and water prior to disinfection.
    • Practice social distancing.

Update: On June 16, 2020, the California Department of Public Health published a checklist for California employers to respond to COVID-19 in the workplace (available here).  Employers should review this checklist and any other state and local requirements that may apply to their business.