How employers should respond if an employee tests positive for COVID-19
As states begin to open their economies, the concern over COVID-19 hasn’t waned. When employees come back to the job site, their hopes are that it’s safe. Business owners are working diligently to mitigate as much risk as possible, but there’s no guarantee.
Some workers will become infected.
How do business owners handle that situation and what is their responsibility to notify others?
If an employee tests positive for the virus, you have several obligations.
First, you’ll need to work with the employee to assure they stay home and get the care they need.
Next, you must notify the appropriate coworkers that there has been a positive test in the company. They should, at minimum, be watchful for any symptoms of the disease.
Finally, you will need to sanitize any areas they were in.
If an employee reports to work with symptoms of COVID-19, employers are within their right to send the staff member home immediately and request a physician’s clearance before they return to the job.
The employee with COVID-19 symptoms should be immediately separated from other employees and customers, and sent home.
Some employers are taking temperatures before workers are allowed inside the workplace. The CDC defines a fever as 100.4 degrees F or higher. Workers who fail the screening should be sent home from work.
Any return to work will need to be predicated on completion of the CDC guidelines to minimize risk of spreading the virus to others.
For staff members who test positive but are asymptomatic, the protocol will be the same. Even without any outward signs of the virus, they will need to stay home to avoid infecting others.
Since it’s unknown today whether COVID-positive patients can spread the disease even if they are not ill, the best course of action is to err on the side of caution.
Identify possible contacts
If an employee does test positive, whether or not they are symptomatic, you’ll need to take steps to notify coworkers.
If the worker has not been in contact with anyone in the workplace for the last 14 days – they have been off or working remotely, for example – you’ll need to notify them to continue to stay home and satisfy the CDC guidelines before requesting they return to work. There will be no need to notify their colleagues in this instance.
If the tested-positive employee has been in physical contact with coworkers at any time during the previous 14-day period, you’ll need to notify staff members they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Do not disclose the name of the colleague who has tested positive: HIPAA and other privacy laws prohibit the dissemination of personal health information.
Do not make company-wide announcements, either. The news will spread through the company grapevine quickly, but it’s incumbent on employers to maintain the confidentiality of health information.
In a small company it will be easy for staff to identify their infected coworker: the staffer may even tell their colleagues. But business owners and management staff are prohibited from discussing any aspect of health information.
It will be important to ask the infected employee to identify any coworkers and work areas within the company they have been in contact with for the 14 days prior to their positive test result. This will give you a starting-off point for notifications and sanitizing the affected areas.
Notify potentially affected coworkers
You’ll need to quickly notify any coworkers, customers, and vendors who were in close contact with the infected employee that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Without identifying the colleague, notify each worker individually.
If they ask who the employee is, remind them privacy laws prohibit you from identifying the name of the colleague. You can disclose the affected employee identified them as someone they had been in contact with on the job, and, in an abundance of caution, you are making the notification and advising the staff member on what to do.
First, you’ll want to alert the staff member to be on the lookout for any signs of infection:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore through
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Even if they do not show any symptoms of the virus, you have the right to request these employees to go home and not return to work until at least 14 days have passed. If they become ill, you can request they stay home for longer. This may create a hardship for employees and the company, but the benefit outweighs the risk. The entire company could become infected if you don’t take immediate, decisive steps as soon as possible.
The CDC recommends that critical infrastructure workers can continue work following potential exposure if they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions take place.
OSHA mandates covered employers record certain work-related injuries and illnesses on their OSHA 300 log, which includes COVID-19 if it is work related and meets recordkeeping criteria.
Sanitize the workplace
Your next responsibility is to deep clean any areas the infected employee has contacted. More than just a wipe-down with a rag, you’ll want to disinfect all areas of the workspace – including shared surfaces like doors, file cabinets, copiers, etc.
Break and rest rooms will need to be cleaned, as well. If you’re doing the cleaning yourself, make sure to wear gloves and a mask to minimize your own risk. If you bring in a cleaning team, you may request they clean the entire premises, rather than just a few selected locations.
Some companies will close entirely until a cleaning team can sanitize the workplace. Others may shut down operations completely for 14 days to further mitigate risk. You’ll need to determine what course of action is best for the safety of your workers, balanced against the risk involved.
Sick leave and FMLA
The CARES Act requires employers with 500 or less employees to provide workers with paid sick leave or paid family and medical leave if they are out due to COVID-19.
Employers can qualify for reimbursement through tax credits for qualifying wages.
If your business has less than 50 employees, you may be exempt from providing paid leave.