The Coronavirus is now the hot topic of conversation that has not only swept through American households, it is also a major concern for employers. Employers have been asking two central questions as the disease appears to be spreading:

(1) How do I protect my employees from possibly contracting the virus; and

(2) What are my obligations if my employees are sick or they fear contracting the virus?

The first is quite simple and no different than the general instructions that our health organizations are providing to our citizens. Be vigilant and more cautious than we are normally accustomed to being about our health. Invest in hand sanitizers and disinfectants and pass them around liberally throughout your office. Instruct your staff to clean their workstations more frequently and possibly require your maintenance staff to clean bathrooms and common areas more aggressively and frequently than normal. As always, monitor employee interaction. Employees that are generally comfortable with handshakes, hugs or other physical touching should be instructed, whether welcome or otherwise, that this type of interaction needs to be limited until this crisis passes.

The answer to the second question is far more complex. What does an employer do if an employee comes to work with symptoms that COULD indicate they have the virus, and what should an employer do if an employee wants to stay home in fear of contracting the virus or because they fear they have contracted the virus. In most work environments, employees have a limited number of paid days off and are reluctant to use them for minor medical issues. Thus, employees with colds, stomach viruses and other conditions often come to work to avoid taking a valuable sick day. Generally, employers tolerate this because they enjoy the productivity of the ill employee and are also reluctant to force an employee to go home. The spread and fear of the Coronavirus requires employers to alter their past inclinations. Any employee who is symptomatic must be sent home immediately. Whether the employer pays the employee or requires the use of a sick day, the employer cannot take the risk of one employee spreading the virus to the rest of the staff. Caution and vigilance require employers to alter their mind set. In any event, company policy should be applied even-handedly. Employers should be careful that their actions are not based on an employee’s national origin or other protected classification.

Standard procedure is for employees to use sick and personal days when they cannot work, and if they have exceeded their days, to take unpaid time. Once employees have exceeded their time off, they will literally come to work under any scenario to avoid unpaid days. Again, employers often accept this because they do not like sending people home. However, to avoid the spread of this virus, which could significantly affect the employer’s business, the employer must address this situation differently. Employers should consider granting employees time off without requiring them to use paid time off or pay them even if they have exceeded their paid time off. Will this cost the employer some short-term monies? Yes. Will employees take advantage by stating they are sick when they are not? Of course. But the effects of a virus of this nature spreading throughout an entire office because the employer essentially forced a sick employee to work could be catastrophic.

The employer must engage in a risk-benefit analysis. What will it cost me in terms of productivity and salary if I allow employees to stay home, and be paid, if they are symptomatic? And what will be the cost if the virus spreads and a large percentage of the staff is out for weeks at a time?

There are no simple answers to addressing the Coronavirus. Be vigilant, be proactive and consider all the risks, costs and benefits of your actions. As with everything, this too will pass, but the smart employer will end up with the best results.

If you would like to discuss potential employment issues in your workplace, contact us for a consultation.