HR staff are involved with the health and wellness of employees. Current health issues make this role critical.
The "flu season" is typically relegated to the winter months and, while influenza and other related diseases can be dangerous to the elderly and others, they are not particularly fatal. Currently, however, a new and potential dangerous virus is in the headlines and spreading worldwide.
What has been popularly referred to as "coronavirus", has making news and creating ripples of panic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides this background information:
"CDC is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in China and which has now been detected in 60 locations internationally, including in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).
On January 30, 2020, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concernexternal icon” (PHEIC). 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."
While a number of countries are seeing cases numbering in the thousands, as of early March 2020, the United States has still only reported around 100 confirmed cases. Nonetheless, caution and prevention is the recommended approach for the workplace in light of the potential threat of contagion.
Policies for Workplace Health Risks
Among the news updates regarding COVID-19, or coronavirus, it is expected that an effective vaccine will be produced soon. This will likely lead to the widespread policy of encouraging employees to receive the vaccine once it does become available.
However, this can be an issue for employers.
Although employers may want to require that all employees receive vaccinations, this can lead to legal problems. For example, a hospital had required the staff to receive a vaccine during a recent outbreak, but this requirement was refused by an employee on religious grounds.
By citing the employers’ obligations under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to accommodate workers’ religious objections, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) successfully contended that the hospital "violated Title VII by failing to accommodate a worker’s sincerely held religious beliefs against receiving an annual flu vaccination."
The settlement with the hospital required them to pay the employee $75,000 along with other non-monetary penalties. The hospital administrators denied any wrongdoing, but did agree to settle prior to trial and to modify its accommodating policy.
In light of cases such as this, employers should be aware of their legal obligations to their employees’ when creating and implementing policies around healthcare issues.
Staying Healthy At Work
Sickness may inevitable, but steps can be taken to minimize the exposure of illness to the larger workforce. It's not uncommon, unfortunately, for entire departments to be crippled by large numbers of employees being laid up sick at home.
While you cannot force people to stay home when they believe they are ill and possibly contagious, there are ways to prevent sick employees from insisting on coming in to work.
So, what steps should a business take in light of the possible spread of COVID-19?
The CDC addresses the current situation along with recommended actions:
"While there is still much to learn about the unfolding situations in California, Oregon and Washington, preliminary information raises the level of concern about the immediate threat for COVID-19 for certain communities in the United States. The potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is very high, to the United States and globally.
At this time, however, most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus. This virus is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States. However, it is important to note that current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic.
Everyone can do their part to help us respond to this emerging public health threat.
It’s currently flu and respiratory disease season and CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine, taking everyday preventive actions to help stop the spread of germs, and taking flu antivirals if prescribed."
It is important for employers and HR staff to remember that confidentiality and anonymity are required when discussing and communicating any information regarding employee health issues. The Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) confidentiality contains provisions that cover these medical situations, as well as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Sick Workers Should Stay Home
The CDC also advises that employees should:
- Stay home if they have respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath) and/or a temperature above 100.4 F.
- Leave work if they develop these symptoms while at the workplace.
- Shield coughs and sneezes with a tissue, elbow, or shoulder (not the bare hands).
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
What can be done with a sick employee who insists on coming in to work despite being instructed not to?
HR Daily Advisor notes that,
"[E]mployers generally have the ability to keep their workplaces safe and healthy by sending apparently sick and/or contagious employees home or asking them not to report to work in the first place. If the employees are nonexempt, then they would not need to be compensated for time not worked... If the employees are exempt, then you also are permitted to require the use of PTO for the missed time. Do note that employers are generally not permitted to deduct wages from an exempt employee’s salary for absences due to sickness or disability."
It's important to communicate and emphasize to all employees that COVID-19 is considered highly contagious and that they can put their fellow employees at risk by coming to work while sick. An outbreak of any contagious disease can even affect a business's operations.
Be Informed and Be Compliant
Maintaining an updated and compliant paid sick leave strategy and policy will help your organization meet its obligations, as well as provide accuracy and timeliness. Understanding the law, automating sick leave tracking and calculations, and prioritizing accurate record keeping will make compliance a sure thing.
Another key step in maintaining HR compliance and increasing your company's cost-effectiveness is to consider outsourcing. A professional agency such as Accuchex can provide much-needed help with Human Resources needs and questions.
Accuchex is a full spectrum Payroll Management Services provider offering expertise in Time Management, Insurance and Retirement issues, as well.
If you are looking for reliable resource for your HR issues, we can help. And you can get your Free Download: California Paid Sick Leave Law to help you make an informed decision, or call Accuchex Payroll Management Services at 877-422-2824.