The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) across the globe remains a significant concern in the workplace. Employers are confronting difficult questions regarding how to handle mandatory lockdowns, safety and health rules, travel restrictions, compensation, and other employment issues. The following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are designed to address some of the more common questions that employers with operations in Italy currently face. Employers are also encouraged to consult relevant FAQs put forth by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health of the Italian government.
1. Should an employer restrict travel to all "affected areas" where there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO)?
Yes, an employer may restrict business travel. The employer is required to monitor the travel advisories and daily updates issued by WHO and governmental authorities.
2. What should an employer do if an employee shares that they plan to travel to an affected area?
Pursuant to various decrees updating the provisions relating to health and hygiene in the workplace, employers must notify the relevant public health authorities if an employee refuses to comply with such requirements. If a reasonable belief exists that an employee either travelled to a high-risk country or area, or acquired or has been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, the employer should ask the authorities to determine whether the employee should be quarantined.
3. How should an employer handle employees who have family members who have traveled to affected areas?
If an employee has had close contact with a family member who has travelled to a high-risk area, the employer may notify the authorities and consult the company's doctor to determine whether employees' health and safety has been compromised.
4. Can we prevent employees from traveling to affected areas for personal reasons?
Employers may not prevent employees from undertaking personal travel to an affected area. The employer may, however, report the employee to the public health authorities to determine the next steps.
5. What discrimination issues should employers address/be aware of?
Employers must make sure not to profile employees, customers, suppliers or other third parties based on their race or ethnicity or unfounded fears of COVID-19 infection.
6. What are the employer's obligations to prevent harassment of those suspected of being infected?
Employers are required to prevent harassment of individuals based on their health status. To this end, employers should remind employees of the company's policies against harassment and discrimination and promptly investigate and respond to any complaints of harassment or bullying in the workplace. Moreover, employers must protect the confidentiality of employees' medical information.
7. Can employers take the temperature of employees who are coming to work?
Generally, such measures would not be allowed. Given the current emergency situation, employers may consult with the company's doctor to determine whether taking employees' temperatures may be considered an adequate measure to protect the health and safety of the workplace. To comply with Italy's privacy regulations, the temperature reading should be handled only by the employee – who will then report any necessary information to the company's appointed health and safety representative – to avoid disclosing the information to other individuals.
8. Are there any rules on what employers are allowed to do concerning subjecting employees to medical examinations or health-related tests that would apply to an emergency situation involving a communicable illness such as COVID-19?
Generally, employment-related medical examinations must be performed only by competent bodies (i.e., public or specialized institutions) and in very specific cases by the company's doctor. During this emergency situation, an employer can ask the a public health institution to send the employee home.
SAFETY & HEALTH RULES
9. Are non-healthcare employees required to wear respirators or other personal protective equipment?
Under Legislative Decree no. 81/2008, employers must adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the safety and health of their workers, providing workers with any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and training them on proper use to avoid occupational risks. During the COVID-19 situation, under the recommendation of the company's doctor, the employer may amend the company's internal health and safety regulations (DVR) for each production unit and require employees to wear facemasks or other necessary PPEs.
10. Can an employer with a public-facing business, prevent employees from wearing a surgical mask or respirator?
Given the emergency situation, employers should not prevent employees from wearing a respirator or PPE. Rather, employers should encourage employees to enforce the health and safety rules, including any special hygienic measures to protect the workplace.
11. What if an employee requests to wear some type of mask as an accommodation?
Given the emergency situation, any such request should be accommodated.
12. For employers that have events for large gatherings scheduled, should they cancel them?
Yes. The government has imposed a national quarantine for the entire country and all large gatherings are prohibited through at least April 3, 2020.
13. Has your country's government issued travel advisories? (If so, please summarize the guidance and provide a link to the government's website (if applicable)).
Yes, the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of International Cooperation has created a special section with a focus on COVID-19 to ensure that users can travel informed and safe. The topics covered include: information on the spread of the new coronavirus and the associated pathology COVID-19; containment measures adopted by the Chinese authorities; areas affected by a limited number of cases outside of China; health checks at airports and entry restrictions in certain countries; World Health Organization recommendations; practical advice; and useful contact information for the Ministry of Health.
14. An employee who recently traveled to an affected area (in another country) is having difficulty re-entering your country:
(a) How can an employer help the employee get back into your country?
Currently, employers are unable to help in such situations.
(b) In the case of a foreign employee, will the government's travel advisories affect an employer's ability to get the foreign employee back into the country? (Discuss if there are visa-related issues.)
Yes, it may affect it. Currently, there are no particular visa restrictions for high-risk countries. However, the ability to enter Italy is not based on holding the appropriate visa, but rather on dealing with the virus.
UNEMPLOYMENT & OCCUPATIONAL RISK LIABILITY
15. Do employer-instituted quarantines or temporary shutdowns or mass lay-offs entitle workers to unemployment benefits or severance?
If a company shuts down operations based on a government mandate or due to a significant loss of business, the company may lay off the employees without pay. In such cases, companies may access a social "safety net" to help them pay salaries to the employees. Access to such welfare programs requires working with the unions.
16. What are an employer's workers compensation obligations if an employee traveled to an affected area for work and contracted COVID-19?
A court may require the employer to pay for any liability not covered by insurance and arising from having exposed the employee to COVID-19 infection by sending them to an affected area, despite the government advising against such travels.
WORKS COUNCIL/INDUSTRIAL UNIONS
17. In the event of a government-declared quarantine or state of emergency, does your country's law override contractual provisions and allow for actions that might contradict a collective bargaining agreement (CBA)?
Yes, though there appears to be no conflict between the recent legislative developments and the current CBAs.
18. According to your government's health department, what are the steps that employees should follow to notify the authorities that they suspect or are confirmed to have a COVID-19 infection?
The employee should contact the general practitioner and/or emergency numbers provided for each Italian region. Health authorities will then assess the case and establish the recovery program.
19. Can an employer require employees to self-report if having a COVID-19 infection?
The employer can inform employees of their reporting requirements and have the employees sign an acknowledgement letter in which they state to have understood their reporting requirements and the sanctions that may arise if they fail to comply.
20. If one of our employees is quarantined, what information can we share with our employees? Who can we share it with?
The employer shall not share medical information regarding employees (even if they are quarantine). In coordination with the public health authorities, the employer may investigate contacts of the quarantined employee to protect other employees and guarantee health and safety at the workplace.
21. What privacy concerns do we need to be aware of when we are asking for the health information of our employees in order to evaluate whether they need to be quarantined?
Generally, quarantines should be issued by public health or other relevant authorities. In extreme cases (when an employee is clearly sick and insists on coming to work), the employer may consult with the company's doctor, who may evaluate the status of the employee and determine fitness to work. No information may be shared with the employer, but rather only between the company's doctor and the employee.
As this is a fluid and rapidly changing situation, please keep in mind that different or additional facts may warrant re-assessment of policies and practices so they can serve the best interest of employees, employers and the community at large. Accordingly, employers should consult with their employment counsel to keep updated on any new legislation or related legal development.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.