On January 31, 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency (PHE) for the United States to aid the nation's healthcare community in responding to COVID-19.1 Although the threat to the U.S. public remains low, there are now confirmed cases in 10 States.2

Despite the relatively few confirmed cases in the United States, employers are recognizing that they have an obligation to take affirmative steps to address employee concerns and protect their workforce from spreading or contracting Coronavirus. Employers not only face an ethical imperative, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") imposes a legal duty on employers to provide employees with a workplace that is "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."3

The solution to preparing for the Coronavirus in your workplace is based in common-sense and should be treated just like any other important area of any business. Employers should develop a policy outlining the company's plan to deal with an outbreak amongst its workforce and develop and implement clear and concise procedures for implementing the policy. The CDC provides employers with a common-sense list of recommended strategies to implement now:4

Actively encourage sick employees to stay home:

  • Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
  • Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
  • Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
  • Do not require a healthcare provider's note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
  • Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.

Separate sick employees:

  • CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).

Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees:

  • Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.
  • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
  • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.
  • Visit the coughing and sneezing etiquette and clean hands webpage for more information.

Perform routine environmental cleaning:

  • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.
  • No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.
  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.

Advise employees before traveling to take certain steps:

  • Check the CDC's Traveler's Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which you will travel. Specific travel information for travelers going to and returning from China, and information for aircrew, can be found on the CDC website.
  • Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms of acute respiratory illness before starting travel and notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
  • Ensure employees who become sick while traveling or on temporary assignment understand that they should notify their supervisor and should promptly call a healthcare provider for advice if needed.
  • If outside the United States, sick employees should follow your company's policy for obtaining medical care or contact a healthcare provider or overseas medical assistance company to assist them with finding an appropriate healthcare provider in that country. A U.S. consular officer can help locate healthcare services. However, U.S. embassies, consulates, and military facilities do not have the legal authority, capability, and resources to evacuate or give medicines, vaccines, or medical care to private U.S. citizens overseas.

Additional Measures in Response to Currently Occurring Sporadic Importations of the COVID-19:

  • Employees who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
  • If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.

In addition to following the CDC's recommendations, Employers should also be aware of the many potential pitfalls that can trip up employers when enacting protocols pertaining to contagious illness in the workplace, including state-specific employment laws, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Rules and Regulations, and OSHA. In particular, employers should be mindful of issues arising under the ADA, such as maintaining confidentiality of health-related information, determining whether absences due to illness or quarantine are job-protected, deciding whether work-from-home arrangements or other accommodations are required, and deciding whether contagious illness may be considered a "direct threat" to workplace safety. While the EEOC has released helpful guidance on dealing with these issues, it is always best to consult counsel to obtain advice specific to your jurisdiction as well as to your unique operations and workforce.


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html (accessed March 2, 2020).

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html (accessed March 2, 2020) (There are confirmed cases in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Florida).

[3] 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(1). OSHA has provided guidance for employers here: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html (accessed March 2, 2020)

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.