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Lawyer advises employers on proper steps with staff regarding coronavirus

Research Triangle Park, N.C.—What does an employer do if an employee exhibits Covid-19 symptoms? What happens when an employee exhausts their sick time? Can employers restrict personal travel?

Those questions and more were addressed Wednesday, March 18, during a webinar, “AASA Alert: Coronavirus Impact.” Rebecca Davies, of Butzel Long, who practices employment law and commercial litigation, discussed issues that have regularly arisen from clients with respect to employment law and implications of Covid-19.

Rebecca Davies

“The laws are changing almost daily, so employers should regularly check with their legal counsel for updates and applicable state laws,” she said, before addressing a few frequently asked questions she’s received from her employer-clients.

If an employee arrives to work exhibiting symptoms, can they be sent home?

Yes, but the issue becomes, “Do you have to pay them?” Whether you do or not is based on a variety of factors such as paid sick leave policies and collective bargaining agreements. Is the employee exempt or non-exempt? A non-exempt, standard hourly-rate employee doesn’t have to be paid for hours not worked. However, exempt employees on a salary must be paid for the entire week even if they worked just one day.

Employers should also look at short-term disability policies as a possible means of compensation.

How long will a sick employee remain out of work?

It depends on the person. Employers can request employees provide a return-to-work authorization form before coming back. The CDC might say health care facilities are overwhelmed from a practical standpoint in asking for that, but I advise waiting for authorization rather than risk another employee being exposed. Our advice is to be flexible and safety first.

Should an employer restrict travel?

Some employers can consider travel restrictions. If an employee travels for business purposes, then they should self-quarantine depending if areas are determined risks by the CDC.

Employers can also inquire where employees are going for personal travel and advise them from the beginning that travel to certain places might require a self-quarantine upon return.

Employers, however, cannot prohibit employees from personal travel, but a conversation needs to take place that includes several parts: educate them about the risk; advise them they might be subject to self-quarantine; and inform them of the risk of not being able to return due to restricted travel.

Set consistent expectations — it should be all travel or travel to a specific place that needs to be addressed.

Can an employer ask an employee if they’ve been exposed to someone with coronavirus?

Employers want to abide by employee confidentiality, but, at the end of the day, they can ask if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus.

Do employers have an obligation, or a right, to inform an employee’s co-workers with whom they work with in close proximity that the employee has tested positively for the coronavirus? Would that violate the employee’s right to medical privacy or the rights of others to know that they might have been exposed?

When an employer is informed an employee has been diagnosed with the virus, the employer will want employees know that there has been a diagnosis, but not the individual’s name because of privacy concerns. The employer will also want to conduct a risk assessment to determine who had contact with the affected employee so they can advised of symptoms and self-quarantine.

The company will want to undertake a thorough disinfecting process and notify the CDC to address any further investigation.

What happens if an employee exhausts their sick, paid time?

They can possibly take FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) if they’re sick or caring for someone who is ill. If they’re off for more than three consecutive days and they seek treatment with regimen care — which is low level and typically involves a prescription — then they might qualify for FMLA.

We urge employers to be flexible and not write-up employees or give them warnings in this difficult time if they need to take time away from work.

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