The novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then, approximately 430 individuals have died as a result of the virus and over 20,700 people have been infected. Eleven individuals in the United States (as of the date of this writing) have been diagnosed with the virus, including a Massachusetts resident and student who recently traveled back from Wuhan, China.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Trump administration declared a public health emergency over the outbreak. The United States also stated that it would temporarily bar entry to the United States of foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China, and U.S. citizens returning from China’s Hubei province will be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The State Department has issued a Level 4 travel advisory stating, “Do not travel to China due to the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China.”
Should employers be worried? How should employers respond? The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stated that, “most American workers are not at significant risk of infection.” Therefore, employers should not “worry” or overreact, but should be well informed, take steps to minimize risks, and be prepared to respond based on the circumstances.
The Basics About the Coronavirus
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms of the virus may appear in as few as two days or up to 14 days after exposure. Symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The virus can be spread from person-to-person, similar to how the flu spreads, such as through sneezing and coughing. The CDC has stated that it currently is not clear if people can get the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
What Employers Can Do to Minimize Risks
Promote Good Workplace Hygiene. There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus. Therefore, the CDC recommends taking everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses such as:
- Wash hands often with soap and water.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when sick.
- Cover a cough or a sneeze with a tissue.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
Employers should provide hand-sanitizers in the workplace and should advise employees on best hygiene practices and prevention measures.
International Travel. OSHA’s general duty clause requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Given the State Department’s Level 4 warning, employer should not require (or permit) employees to travel to China for business until further notice. Employers should also carefully evaluate employee business travel to any country that has been affected by the virus and consider other options, such as conducting meetings by video conference.
Personal Travel. While an employer can control work-related travel, an employer’s legal ability to restrict an employee’s personal travel is much less clear. However, an employer should consider requiring an employee returning from travel to China or other affected areas to stay out of work, or to work from home, during the incubation period.
This issue, like prior issues related to SARS and the Swine flu, requires employers to balance their legal obligation to provide a safe workplace with their obligation to avoid violating privacy and discrimination laws. The best way for employers to walk this tightrope is to be well-informed about the facts, as published by official government agencies like the CDC and OSHA, and not act on assumptions or misinformation. Employers should continue to closely monitor this situation as it evolves.
This information is for educational purposes only to provide general information and a general understanding of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not establish any attorney-client relationship.