A COVID-19 Response Plan for Employees’ Return to the Workplace
The California and Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act require employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. There is no escaping the fact that COVID-19 may well now rank among the recognized hazards and infectious diseases. Employers who have shut down or dramatically reduced on-site work should start planning for their employees' return to the workplace including developing sound plans, policies and procedures aimed at minimizing the risks of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, and responding to its presence in the workplace.
Develop a COVID-19 Response Plan
As a first line of defense, creating and communicating clear policies to employees will reduce the risk of employees who are infected, or have been in close personal contact with someone infected, with COVID-19 spreading COVID-19 in the workplace.
Many employers need to start from scratch to create a COVID-19 or pandemic response plan. Employers with an influenza pandemic plan should be able to efficiently adapt it to COVID-19 to address the specific exposure risks, sources of exposure, routes of transmission and other unique characteristics of COVID-19.
For all employers, it will be important to check state, county, city and local government and public health websites for orders and guidance that vary widely from one community to the next, making the task even more challenging for employers in multiple locations.
Establish and Follow Policies and Procedures to Address and Mitigate COVID-19 Risks
To this end, consider:
- Overarching Policies and Practices:
- Identifying a workplace coordinator to be responsible for COVID-19 issues;
- Create flexible policies for leave, telework and employee compensation that allow sick employees to stay home and away from co-workers;
- Ensure the availability of secure hardware and technology to allow the core functions of your business to operate in remote locations;
- Plan for continuing business operations if there are disruptions to vendor relationships;
- Create an emergency decision-making function to shortcut the time to make critical decisions in an urgent environment;
- Create a chain of communications and processes for tracking and communicating changes within your organization and with critical outside business relationships to facilitate rapid response to COVID-19 issues;
- Do not allow employees to report to work if they are sick or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms;
- In advance of returning to work, ascertain whether any of your employees have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, been in close personal contact with individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, or traveled to COVID-19 hotspots within the last 14 days and determine standards for inviting them to return to work;
- Use flexible worksites and flexible work hours to improve social distancing;
- Implement and enforce daily work station and workplace cleansing policies in accordance with CDC guidelines;
- Promote frequent and thorough hand washing, and the use of hand sanitizer;
- Encourage respiratory etiquette, including coughing into one’s elbow, and using and disposing of tissues made available in the workplace;
- Workers should not use other employees’ work stations, phones or equipment.
- Vendor, Customer, Client Facing Policies:
- Implement visitor area cleansing protocols in accordance with CDC guidelines;
- Ensure availability of hand sanitizer, tissues and trash receptacles lined with disposable bags;
- Advance communication with vendors to understand whether their COVID-19 policies and practices measure up to yours, and action plan if they do not.
- Response Plan for Employees Who Experience COVID-19 Symptoms In the Workplace
- Employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace should be sent home with instructions not to return until sometime after they are symptom-free. With or without a COVID-19 diagnosis, an employer may properly request medical confirmation that an employee is cleared to return to work without restriction before permitting an employee to return to work after having been out for COVID-19 related illness or symptoms;
- Upon discovery of a symptomatic employee, that person’s movement should be limited, and the employee should be instructed to leave the workplace in a manner that minimizes contact with the workplace and individuals therein;
- Areas used by the person who was sick should be vacated and closed;
- Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area for 24 hours before cleaning or disinfecting. If 24 hours is not feasible, then wait as long as possible;
- While the CDC recommends techniques and materials for cleaning and disinfecting areas used by the sick person, such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment like tablets, touch screens, keyboards, remote controls, and ATM machines, it is recommended to engage a commercial, licensed, insured cleaning service to undertake that effort;
- The CDC indicates that if it is more than 7 days since the sick person visited or used the facility, additional cleaning and disinfection is not necessary;
- Continue routine cleaning and disinfection.
- Response Plan for COVID-19 Positive Employees
- Determine the last time the employee entered your workplace, and ascertain the workplace areas in which the employee worked during the prior 14 days;
- Ask the COVID-19 Positive employee to identify any other employees with whom s/he had contact during the prior 14 days;
- Alert all employees that are identified that they may have been exposed to a co-worker diagnosed with COVID-19 and direct them to keep an eye out for symptoms. DO NOT reveal the identity of the co-worker;
- If the COVID-19 positive employee worked in close personal contact with specific other employees, consider permitting such employees to resume remote work for 14 days to eliminate the possibility of infection;
- Employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 should not return to work until the CDC criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, medical confirmation that the employee may return to work, and in consultation with healthcare providers and, potentially, state and local health departments.
Going Forward - Keep Abreast of Guidelines and Orders
The CDC continues to update and publish guidelines, many of which are tailored to specific industries and reflective of the most current information available. All employers are encouraged to check the CDC, OSHA and Cal/OSHA guidelines (which are updated frequently) for guidance to customizing plans that address the unique characteristics of your workplace. Similarly, other federal agencies, state, county, city, and local governments continue to issue their own guidelines and orders, which may conflict. Employers should consult with counsel and regularly check the appropriate state and local health department and elected official websites to keep abreast of the latest orders, guidelines and information necessary to keep their own policies current and reflective of best practices.
Employers and employees are under great stress due to the fears of COVID-19 and the unknowns of returning to work. An employer’s ability to restore productivity in the workplace will include restoring morale and calming fears attendant to being in the workplace at an uncertain time. Employers should take affirmative measures to instill confidence in their employees even if there is no order requiring such measures. Employees will appreciate employers’ efforts to address overarching safety concerns hand-in-hand with procedures that safeguard employee privacy in the event of COVID-19 symptoms or infection.