Coronavirus & the Workplace

September 1, 2020

Coronavirus & the Workplace

The novel Coronavirus now called COVID-19, unheard of more than 10 weeks ago has now been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a pandemic.

On February 29, 2020, the Washington state governor declared a state of emergency in response to the continued diagnosis of COVID-19 cases in the state and has restricted large gatherings in Seattle.  The CDC reported yesterday that there are over 113,702 confirmed cases worldwide, including cases in 34 states in this country.  

The CDC has stated that the current goal is to slow the spread of the virus so that healthcare providers, facilities, and governments do not become overwhelmed.

Employers have an obvious duty to their customers, partners, and boards, but OSHA regulations make it clear that employers also have an obligation under the general duty clause to provide employees with a workplace that is free from known hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.  The U.S. Department of Labor has published a Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 to assist employers.

What employers should do about the virus

The CDC and OSHA recommend the following:

  • Stay informed regarding the latest information from federal, state, and local agencies
  • Encourage sick employees and employees with sick family members to stay home 
  • Separate sick employees until they can go home
  • Perform routine environmental cleaning of the workplace, particularly high use areas and objects:  doorknobs, keyboards, copy machines, countertops, phones, etc.
  • Have soap and water and/or hand sanitizer available for employee use
  • Encourage employees to practice healthy respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene 
  • Offer the option of telecommuting or flexible work hours
  • Discourage employees from using other employees’ phones, workstations, tools, etc.
  • Review leave policies for flexibility and consistency with current law
  • Check the CDC’s Travel Health Notices prior to international business travel and encourage employees to do the same prior to personal travel.  
  • Review the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers 
  • Establish a method to effectively communicate information to employees outside of work hours

Business steps that should be taken to protect employees from COVID-19

  • Evaluate whether employee travel is necessary 
  • Determine which functions may be performed remotely
  • Evaluate whether business can be conducted via video conferencing or by phone rather than in person
  • Cross-train employees regarding essential business functions
  • Identify essential functions or elements within the supply chain and plan for how to deal with delays or unavailability 
  • Plan for increased absenteeism due to illness, school closures, childcare challenges, etc.
  • Consider not requiring employees to provide a doctor’s note to support an absence as such documentation may be difficult to obtain from overwhelmed healthcare providers
  • Consider short-term suspension of certain attendance policies 
  • Develop a strategy for carrying out basic activities with minimal staff
  • Evaluate personal protective equipment needs

Washington employers should be aware that employees who miss work as a result of COVID-19 issues, including but not limited to employee or family illness, quarantine, school closure, reduced work schedule, business closure, lay off, etc. may be entitled to benefits under various programs including FMLA, Washington Paid Sick & Safe Leave, Unemployment benefits, Worker’s Compensation.  

Employers should do their best to try to keep up with the types of benefits available and emergency rules developed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Washington’s Employment Security Department has issued emergency rules designed to make it easier for individuals who miss work as a result of a COVID-19 issue (including individuals directed by a doctor to self-quarantine or those individuals who miss work because an employer needs to shut down operations) to receive benefits.

Various entities have rules or programs which may assist or affect employers facing issues related to COVID-19, including the Washington State Department of Revenue.  DOR has the authority to grant extensions to the due date for excise tax returns and waive penalties in certain circumstances.

Continue to check with governmental entities if your business is affected by the declared state of emergency in Washington or COVID-19.  

Additional information and resources may be found at the following:

As always, please feel free to contact us with any questions.  

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