Limiting Risks When Reopening Your Business After COVID-19 Shutdown

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Many businesses are understandably eager to resume operations as the restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus loosen. Beginning in the second week in May 2020, businesses in some sectors of California’s economy were permitted to reopen, as the state entered Stage 2 of Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to reopen the economy.

As the state continues its efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is that businesses will look very different when they reopen. While taking reasonable steps to prevent illness in the workplace is always advisable practice, it is paramount now. As businesses reopen, they must ensure that they are taking all necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of their employees, customers, and visitors. In doing so, businesses may well protect themselves from exposure to liability down the road.

STAY CURRENT AND DEVELOP A PLAN FOR BUSINESS REOPENING

Businesses should closely monitor government directives related to COVID-19 at the federal, state and local level, and ensure they are in compliance. Being out of compliance with current recognized legal standards is a sure invitation to liability claims if someone can show they were injured as a result.

GUIDANCE FROM OSHA AND THE CDC

As a foundation, businesses must follow existing Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards during the pandemic, such as the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1), of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states that all workers must be provided workplace that is safe and free of hazards. In addition, OSHA has released guidelines for businesses to reduce the risk of infection in the workplace posed by COVID-19.

OSHA is also closely coordinating with CDC, NIOSH and other agencies on proper safety precautions. The CDC has issued Guidance on Disinfecting the Workplace (specifically after a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19). For instance, routine cleaning of commonly used areas is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. However, areas that have not been used in a week or more require only routine cleaning. Employers should check the CDC and OSHA websites often for guidance to make sure their business has the most updated guidance on PPE and other safety measures.

STATE-LEVEL GUIDANCE

According the state’s guidance on Stage 2 of reopening Before reopening, all facilities must:
• Perform a detailed risk assessment and implement a site-specific protection plan
• Train employees on how to limit the spread of COVID-19, including how to screen themselves for symptoms and stay home if they have symptoms
• Implement individual control measures and screenings
• Implement disinfecting protocols
• Implement physical distancing guidelines

California has also issued industry-specific guidance relevant to the businesses of many of our clients:
“Logistics and Warehousing Facilities” –
COVID-19 INDUSTRY GUIDANCE: Logistics and Warehousing Facilities
COVID-19 General Checklist for Logistics and Warehousing Employers
“Manufacturing” –
COVID-19 INDUSTRY GUIDANCE: Manufacturing
Cal/OSHA COVID-19 General Checklist for Manufacturing Employers
“Office Workspaces” –
COVID-19 INDUSTRY GUIDANCE: Office Workspaces
Cal/OSHA COVID-19 General Checklist for Office Workspaces

LOCAL STAY-AT-HOME ORDERS

The Safer at Home order covering businesses in Los Angeles County, which remains in effect for an indeterminate time, requires that all “Essential Businesses” (and, by extrapolation, other businesses that are allowed to open in some capacity):
(1) Provide employees with, and all employees are required to wear, a cloth face covering when performing their duties requires that they be around others;
(2) Practice social distancing by requiring patrons, visitors, and employees to be separated by six feet, to the extent feasible;
(3) Provide access to hand washing facilities with soap and water and/or hand sanitizer; and
(4) Post a sign in a conspicuous place at the public entry to the venue instructing members of the public not to enter if they are experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness, including fever or cough.

CONDUCT AN INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC RISK ASSESSMENT

• Walk through the workplace and observe it in its usual state during different phases of business activity.
• Rate all risks found as high, medium, and low risk, and address the risks accordingly.
• Regularly evaluate the office workspace for compliance with the plan and document and correct deficiencies identified.
• Investigate any COVID-19 illness and determine if any work-related factors could have contributed to risk of infection. Update the plan as needed to prevent further cases.

ADAPT YOUR IDER PLAN TO SAFELY REOPEN

Business will change after reopening, and business have to adapt accordingly. While a business cannot be expected to ensure prevention of infection with COVID-19 in its workplace, it is strongly advisable to institute and follow reasonable safety measures as part of an Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plan (IDERP). Once the business has developed a plan to protect its workers, it must then be effectively communicated to employees. The employer should post a notice of these policies in a conspicuous location in the workplace.

Part of this plan entails assessing current protocols to accommodate social distancing policies, such as:
• Require those employees that can work from home to do so; Helpful to categorize jobs classified as low, medium, high, and very high exposure risk.
• Provide hand sanitizer and schedule frequent cleaning to sanitize common areas in the workplace (such as door knobs, keyboards, the break room, etc.).
• Discourage workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, as much as possible.
• Limit non-essential visitors and establish screening policies for essential visitors

COMMUNICATE THE PLAN TO EMPLOYEES AND MAKE IT AVAILABLE TO CUSTOMERS

• Train managers and supervisors to recognize COVID-19 symptoms, the precautions that will be implemented to prevent infection, and how to response to emerging employee/customer infection.
• Inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.
• Instruct managers, supervisors and employees on use of PPE, cleaning schedules and sanitizing techniques, and what to do if exposure is suspected.
• Have a summary of the plan posted or available to customers on request.
• Address when employees are fearful to come into work because of the risk of contracting COVID-19 by discussing the IDER Plan that has been implemented.

VERIFY ALL NEW AND RETURNING PERSONNEL’S HEALTH AND ABILITY TO WORK

• Utilize a basic Health Questionnaire each day an employee reports to work.
• Consider implementing pre and post work shift temperature checks. Employees should not be permitted to work with temperatures over 100.4°F. The EEOC has confirmed that measuring employees’ body temperatures and/or testing for COVID-19 does not run afoul of the employee privacy protections provided in the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but the results must be kept confidential. (Note that body temperature is not completely reliable, as some carriers of the virus do not exhibit fever symptoms.) The EEOC has not addressed antibody testing to date.
• Be certain to avoid discriminatory practices in the Health Questionnaire and health screening of employees.

WHAT IF AN EMPLOYEE TESTS POSITIVE FOR COVID-19 AFTER REOPENING?

The business’ IDERP should include protocols for how the business will respond if an employee test positive for COVID-19.
• Develop policies and procedures from prompt identification and isolation of sick workers (The CDC Guidance on Disinfecting the Workplace specifically addressed safety measures after a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19).
• Until at least July 6, 2020, California presumes a COVID-19 infection was acquired at work if it was diagnosed, or a positive test occurs, within 14 days after any worksite appearance. While the presumption can be rebutted in theory, in effect this means that active employees will almost always receive workers compensation benefits and treatment for COVID-19 infections. Be sure to follow normal workers compensation procedures as you would for any other workplace injury or illness.
• EEOC guidelines allow employers to ask if employees are experiencing recognized symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat). Employers must maintain that information in confidence as a medical record – information about an employee’s symptoms may be protected by ADA or HIPPA.
• Once the employer has good faith reason to believe an employee has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, the employee should be required to stay out of the workplace for a 14-day period or until cleared by a doctor’s note or alternative, such as a negative COVID-19 test report. This policy must be applied in a non-discriminatory fashion, not applied only against selected individuals.
• The employer must advise other employees who may have contact with the affected person, without identifying the affected employee, to protect that employee’s privacy. The employer must take steps to prevent harassment or discrimination against those suspected of having COVID-19.

DEVELOP CONTINGENCY PLANS IN THE EVENT OF AN OUTBREAK

Businesses would be wise to develop contingency plans to prepare for scenarios which may arise as a result of outbreaks, such as:
• Increased rates of worker absenteeism.
• The need for social distancing, staggering work shifts, downsizing operations, delivering services remotely, and other exposure-reducing measures.
• Options for conducting essential operations with a reduced workforce, including cross-training workers across different jobs in order to continue operations or deliver surge services.
• Options for interrupted supply chains or delayed deliveries.
Employers who implement these safety measures and diligently adhere to them will not only improve their workplace and avoid disruptions, they will reduce their exposure to liability in the event that an employee, customer or vendor contracts COVID-19.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys will continue to monitor and advise clients about the legal implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how businesses can navigate these uncertain times.

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Employers’ Duties to Maintain Employee Privacy in a COVID-19 Pandemic

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Dealing with illness in the workplace can be challenging under normal circumstances, but it is much more so in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. Many questions remain unanswered regarding the precise application of federal, state and local orders and their relationship with employee benefits. As COVID-19 becomes an increasing presence in California workplaces, and employers are forced to comply with government directives, it is just as important as ever for employers to take steps to maintain compliance with employee privacy regulations. Workers who suffer adverse employment decisions, such as pay reductions, furloughs and layoffs, may be particularly attuned to whether all their rights were respected in the process.

How much information may an employer request from an employee who calls in sick, in order to protect the rest of its workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic?

According to Guidance provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, employers covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may ask employees if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat, but employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.

Does an employer have a duty to inform employees that one of their colleagues has tested positive for COVID-19?

Employers may be uncertain about whether to tell employees that there has been a reported case of COVID-19 in the workplace. Depending on the particular facts involved, information regarding illness of an employee or family member may be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the ADA or both.

A pandemic, on the other hand, likely alters those practices. In light of the rapid spread of COVID-19, employers should promptly inform workers if one of their colleagues tests positive for the virus. However, employers typically need not divulge the identity of an employee or employee’s family member to achieve the objective of maintaining a healthy workplace.

Employers may also choose to notify employees and other relevant parties that contagious illnesses may be present in any workplace and list precautionary steps suggested by medical professionals, such as the CDC. Even when not specifically required by law, it is important for business effectiveness to maintain the privacy of individual employees. These matters are best handled carefully to prevent unnecessary disruption in the workplace.

How should the employer communicate to employees that one of their colleagues has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

Clear, effective employer communications are critical to providing employees with relevant information, maintain order in the workplace, and reduce employees’ concerns. Employers should keep the following in mind when developing employee communications:

• Inform employees that the company will take any reasonable and necessary steps to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.
• Identify typical symptoms employees should watch out for.
• Include information on how to protect against getting the illness.
• Advise employees of any changes to policies.
• Notify employees of any discontinued travel.
• Ensure HR is available and prepared to address employees’ questions

What Are Employers’ Obligations to Prevent Harassment of Those Suspected of Being Infected?

Employers must take steps to prevent discrimination and harassment against individuals who have a potential claim that they are disabled due to a COVID-19 related reason. Employers should consider reminding employees of anti-harassment and discrimination company policies. Employers must be vigilant about promptly responding to and investigating any complaints of harassment or bullying in the workplace, and be conscious to limit the spread of rumors and speculation amongst the workforce.

Under the ADA, may an employer to require employees to provide a doctors’ notes certifying their fitness for duty when they return to work?

The EEOC says yes. The ADA permits such inquiries either because they would not be disability-related or, are justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees given the COVID-19 outbreak. However, doctors and other health care professionals may be too busy during and immediately after a pandemic outbreak to provide fitness-for-duty documentation. Therefore, new approaches may be necessary, such as reliance on local clinics to provide a form, a stamp, or an e-mail to certify that an individual does not have the pandemic virus.

Conkle, Kremer and Engel’s attorneys follow the legal developments concerning Coronavirus issues at the federal, state and local level. We are available to assist employers navigate their rights and obligations in these difficult times.

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Hot Yoga and Cold Law: Employment Retaliation Claims Can Arise Anywhere

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Most people would agree that working in a government office that supervises lawyers is quite different than working in a 104 degree “hot yoga” studio. But recent matters involving these two very different work environments show that employment retaliation claims can be asserted against any employer – whether you’re a yoga master or the master of all lawyers in California.

The California State Bar has the staid mission of regulating the admission of attorneys and investigating assertions of attorney misconduct. Yet in November 2015, the State Bar found itself charged with wrongful employment retaliation after it fired one of its top managers, John Noonen. Noonen asserted that the termination was retaliatory because, just a few weeks earlier, he submitted a 40-page internal complaint against the State Bar’s top attorney for allegedly failing to properly investigate complaints against the president of the State Bar. The State Bar has denied Noonen’s retaliation allegations and has said that Noonen’s position was eliminated as part of a cost-saving effort.

Less than two months later, the same types of claims led to a sizeable jury verdict against a completely different business run by famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury made his fortune teaching yoga instructors his techniques and allowing graduates to operate yoga studios that feature a specific yoga sequence performed in a 104-degree room. In January 2016, a Los Angeles jury found that Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal advisor and wrongfully fired her for investigating others’ claims of sexual discrimination and assault against him. Choudhury asserted he had good cause to fire his legal advisor because she was not licensed to practice law in California. The jury first ordered Choudhury and his yoga business to pay $924,000 in compensatory damages, and the next day the jury upped the ante with a further award of $6.4 million in punitive damages.

In each of these recent cases, employees alleged that their bosses improperly “retaliated” against them for investigating workplace misconduct. Most employers and employees know that laws exist to protect employees from wrongful discrimination and harassment. The same laws also provide that employers cannot punish or “retaliate” against employees for making complaints about other potentially wrongful employment conduct, such as discrimination or harassment, or for participating in workplace investigations about such potential wrongful employment conduct.

“Retaliation” is prohibited by the same federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability and gender. “Retaliation” can take many forms, including termination, demotion, suspension or other employment discipline against the employee for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting perceived employer discrimination or other misconduct. Owing to its broad scope, retaliation is a claim commonly raised by disgruntled or terminated employees. In fact, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), retaliation is the most common basis of discrimination claims in EEOC cases.

These cases illustrate some of the many circumstances in which employment issues can lead to litigation against a wide variety of employers. Conkle, Kremer & Engel regularly advises employer and individuals on workplace issues and the ramifications of retaliation and harassment claims so that all involved can take steps to resolve conflicts in a meaningful, efficient way. When circumstances do not do not allow a non-litigated solution, CK&E attorneys litigate and arbitrate employment disputes including retaliation claims, whether the claims are asserted individually or as a class action.

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