Federal, California and other state and local governments continue to grapple with responding to and reducing the spread of Coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2
(SARS-CoV-2)) and the disease caused by it, COVID-19. In addition to grappling with the personal and family effects, employers must ensure that they have a response plan in place to address Coronavirus’ impact on their business. In doing so, employers must be conscious of responding appropriately in light of the legal and business implications. In some ways, employers are in uncharted territory, but there are guideposts in existing laws and regulations. Here are some of the important considerations for employers to keep in mind in responding to Coronavirus:
Stay Up to Date on Government Guidance
In order to make an educated decision regarding what course of action will best protect employee safety, employers need to stay informed about the latest developments regarding the spread of the virus and adhere to government guidance for responding to the virus.
The Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) has provided Interim Guidance for Business and Employers meant to help prevent workplace exposures based on the information currently known about the virus. Given the rapidly evolving nature of this situation, employers should check the CDC’s website frequently for updates.
Employee Education to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace
Some basic steps employers should take to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus and protect workers’ health and safety include:
- > Educate employees on Coronavirus signs and symptoms and precautions to take to minimize the risk of contracting the virus
- > Encourage employees to wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and avoid touching their mouth, nose, and eyes with unwashed hands
- > Practice social distancing, including minimizing non-essential travel, meetings and visitors
- > Provide employees who continue to work in the office with hand sanitizer, flu masks, disinfecting wipes and paper towels, instruct them on proper use, and direct them to diligently clean frequently touched surfaces and objects (such as doorknobs, telephones, keyboards and mice)
- > Actively encourage employees who show any symptoms of the disease caused by Coronavirus (COVID-19) or are close to others who have, to stay home and not come to work
Formulate a Response Plan
Employers should move quickly to implement workplace policies to prevent the spread of the virus and protect employees. Some examples of potential elements of an employer’s response plan may include:
- > Establish processes to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plan
- > Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and existing state and federal workplace laws
- > Increase the frequency and thoroughness of worksite cleaning efforts, particularly in common areas such as bathrooms, break rooms and kitchens
- > Seriously consider new policies and practices to reduce congregations and increase the physical distance between employees, customers, vendors and others, to reduce the chances for exposure – for example, staggered break times, phone or video conferences instead of meetings
- > To the extent feasible, ensure that employees have the requisite computer, phone and other technological capabilities to perform their work from home
- > Formulate plans for suppliers and workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, such as staggered schedules and breaks, off-hours deliveries, or having some tasks performed by outside contractors
- > Encourage employees who are feeling sick to stay home or work remotely, even if they are not showing Coronavirus symptoms
- > Prepare to respond to employees who may be nervous or concerned about contracting COVID-19. Employers should be understanding of employees’ concerns and evaluate each request or issue based on the individual employee’s specific circumstances.
Legal Implications of Workplace Strategy
Although there is currently no California law or regulations addressing an employer’s legal obligations relating specifically to Coronavirus, workplace safety and health regulations in California require employers to protect workers exposed to airborne infectious diseases. Therefore, it is important for employers to understand the legal issues implicated by Coronavirus and the guiding legal principles which will inform the employer’s response to the virus.
OSHA Standards for Maintaining a Safe Workplace
Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees, and the best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure. The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act of 1970, 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(1) requires employers to provide workers with working conditions free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, to receive information and training about workplace hazards; and to exercise their rights without retaliation, among others.
The Aerosol Transmissible Diseases (ATD) standard (California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5199) requires employers to take certain actions to protect employees from airborne diseases and pathogens such as Coronavirus. The regulations apply only to specific industries, such as health care facilities, law enforcement services and public health services, in which employees are reasonably expected to be exposed to suspected or confirmed cases of aerosol transmissible diseases.
The ATD requires such employers to protect employees through a written ATD exposure control plan and procedure, training, and personal protective equipment, among other things. However, the requirements are less stringent in situations where the likelihood of exposure to airborne infectious diseases is reduced. For more information, Cal/OSHA has posted guidance to help employers comply with these safety requirements and to provide workers information on how to protect themselves.
Medical Leave, Paid Sick Leave Issues and Disability Discrimination
If an employee is forced to miss work due to the need to be quarantined or the need to care for a family member for similar reasons, employers must determine whether the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other leave laws apply to an employee’s absence. If the employee has exhibited symptoms and is required to be away from work per the advice of a healthcare provider or is needed to care for a family member, leave laws may apply to the absence.
The FMLA regulations state that the flu ordinarily does not meet the Act’s definition of a “serious health condition,” it may qualify if it requires inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. In addition, eligible employees might be entitled to FMLA leave when taking time off for examinations to determine if a serious health condition exists, and evaluations of the condition, under the FMLA definition of “treatment.”
In contrast, if the employer itself implements health and safety precautions that require the employee to be away from work, an employer should proceed with caution before designating any time away from work as leave under a specific law. Doing so may require that the employee provide such leave when it otherwise would not be required to do so.
Review your sick leave, PTO (paid time off), or vacation policies. Consider reminding workers that the use of paid sick leave (PSL) is available to help workers who are sick to stay home. However, the employer cannot require that the worker use PSL – that is the employee’s choice. Employers may require employees use their vacation or PTO benefits before they are allowed to take unpaid leave, but cannot mandate that employees use PSL.
Employees in California at worksites with 25 or more employees may also be provided up to 40 hours of leave per year for specific school-related emergencies, such as the closure of a child’s school or day care by civil authorities (Labor Code section 230.8). Whether that leave is paid or unpaid depends on the employer’s paid leave, vacation or other PTO policies.
Paying Workers During a Pandemic
Depending on your organization’s business, some employees may be directed to work from home, temporarily furloughed, or work a reduced schedule.
Furloughs and Layoffs
Short-term layoffs or furloughs are generally permitted as long as the criteria for selection are not protected classes such as race, national origin, gender, etc. Exempt employees generally should continue to receive their full salary for each workweek in which they perform work. In contrast, hourly workers need not be paid for time not worked. A short-term layoff or furlough of less than six months should not implicate notice obligations under the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, but may require advance notice under the California WARN Act, which was recently interpreted as having been triggered by certain short-term furloughs.
If non-exempt employees’ work schedules are reduced due to a temporary closure, they need not be paid according to their regular schedule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, they may be eligible for state Disability Insurance (“DI”), and Paid Family Leave (“PFL”) benefits for caring for themselves or their family members. Employees receiving reduced hours because of the effects of COVID-19 may be eligible for unemployment insurance (“UI”). In California, the Governor’s Executive Order waives the one-week unpaid waiting period for DI and UI, so workers can collect those benefits for the first week out of work.
Resources for Additional Information about Coronavirus from the CDC
For more information about the Coronavirus and how businesses and individuals should best respond, refer to the below resources provided by the CDC and California’s Employment Development Department:
CDC: About Coronavirus and COVID-19
CDC: What You Need to Know About Coronavirus
CDC: Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers
CDC: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
EDD: Coronavirus 2019 and COVID-19
CK&E Can Help
During these uncertain and rapidly changing developments, employers need to be proactive and careful as to the steps they take to protect their businesses, employees, customers and vendors. Lawyers at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have decades of experience advising California employers and companies doing business in California about labor, regulatory, consumer and contract concerns. We remain available and ready to help our clients navigate these difficult times. Please contact John Conkle, Amanda Washton or any of our attorneys to discuss your concerns.