The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has directly affected governments, businesses, and individuals since it originated in China only a few months ago. Challenges will likely become more prevalent in the weeks to come. We write briefly here to discuss best practices for employers and to identify employee rights in this time of concern.
Generally, employers are required to maintain safe workplaces, which includes a workplace free from contagions. Employers can meet this requirement in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to, imposing quarantines on employees who have returned from high risk countries, educating employees on prevention, and permitting work from home or sick leave for affected employees.
There is no one size fits all option for dealing with these concerns and employers should be flexible in their approach. The absence of one employee as a matter of extra caution may be a work challenge, but the potential for the absence of several if the virus is transmitted in the office is likely to be more significant. This principle, of course, applies for almost all instances when an employee is sick -and has served as the basis for many to adopt unlimited sick leave policies which have become more popular in recent years.
Employees face their own difficulties in confronting this virus as well, including issues around their sick leave entitlements and even discrimination. They should certainly inform employers if ill to protect others and themselves. If an employee’s family member becomes sick, that employee may have the option to take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for family. Specific leave rights are tied to employer size and other factors too numerous to discuss in detail here.
The spread of the virus and discussion of it in the media has also generated concerns about discrimination, particularly toward Asians. For example, Chinese restaurants across the country have seen a large decline in customers likely because of misconceptions about Chinese people carrying the virus or fear that such restaurants would be breeding grounds for the virus. The virus’s origination in China does not, by itself, give license to employers to discriminate against their employees. Race based employment decisions, including making decisions to have only Asian employees work from home, excluding Asian employees from workplace functions, or selectively enforcing hygiene and sick policies against Asian employees (or any other people from countries with a large number of cases of Coronavirus) will give rise to legal claims. All should be vigilant as to this risk.
Finally, we would note that media attention to this virus has been unique and often alarmist. In this context, a dose of extra contemplation and careful consideration is likely to be the best cure. Employers and employees are on the same team in soldiering through this public health risk, and over-communication and flexibility as to good safety protocols and work schedules will serve everyone best. Listed below are the latest links to government resources all might consult with to stay up to date and make proper decisions. At BLG, of course, we are ready and able to answer any questions you might have. #BLG#Letustaketheworryoutofyourwork