Are you concerned that you’re at risk for getting COVID-19 when you return to work? The news is filled with stories of the terrible consequences of contracting this disease. So, yes, there may be a risk. As I explained in my blog post, “COVID-19 and Returning to Work: Protections under the ADA,” federal agencies have published guidelines outlining the actions that employers should take to protect employees. This article goes into more depth regarding what protective measures you should expect at your job.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
One way to protect yourself is staying current on the medical news. Experts are making new discoveries about the coronavirus every day. You should avoid relying on inaccurate information.
This week Dr. James Musser, Chairman of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Methodist Hospital, announced that the virus strain most prominently found in the Houston area is more contagious than that in other parts of the country. Therefore, it behooves us to be even more careful when we go outside our homes than we might be otherwise. If one of your co-workers shows symptoms of COVID-19, you should take extra caution.
Other new revelations came this week from Dr. Anthony Fauci, medical expert for the White House task force, and Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), who testified before the Senate Health Committee on May 12th. There are 6 take-aways from their testimony, according to the Washington Post:
- Fauci warns strongly against reopening too quickly, stating:
The major message that I wish to convey to the Senate committee is the danger of trying to open the country prematurely. If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines under “Open America Again,” then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country. This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.
- Fauci says that the death total is almost certainly higher than known. “Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than [reported], . . . [T]here may have been people who died at home … who are not counted because they never got to the hospital,” he testified.
- New guidelines will soon be issued by the CDC.
- We should be especially careful in watching for symptoms in children. It has been believed that children are not as affected by the coronavirus as adults. Dr. Fauci testified that they recently discovered that some young children with COVID-19 can develop a strange, very dangerous inflammatory reaction not present in adults.
- The United States has not done nearly enough with regard to testing. Widespread screening, much like was done in South Korea, would identify those who are sick and allow tracing of others who have been exposed.
- Fauci remains skeptical about allowing colleges to reopen in the fall.
We should pay attention to medical experts, such as Dr. Fauci, who base their statements on the evidence and peer-reviewed studies, rather than on people giving their baseless opinions or speculating about what might happen in the future.
What Should Employers Do to Protect Employees Returning to Work?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines for employers to protect against COVID-19. Also, the Governor’s Office has provided a checklist to follow for the safety of office-based employees. The EEOC continually updates its website as new discoveries are made, the latest date being May 7, 2020. Those guidelines include the following:
Ordinarily, measuring an employee’s body temperature is considered a “medical examination,” which generally is prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, during the pandemic, the EEOC permits employers to measure employees’ body temperature without violating the ADA. To protect employees’ privacy, the fact that an employee had a fever or other symptoms cannot be divulged, as mandated by ADA confidentiality restrictions.
Employers may perform diagnostic COVID-19 testing before workplace entry. The EEOC has warned that employers must ensure the tests are accurate and reliable. You might have learned that some tests have proven suspect, and so the employer has an obligation to stay current on valid testing measures if testing is implemented.
Accommodations to Protect Employees
The EEOC guidelines provide a number of protective measures for employers to consider, such as:
- providing masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees to use at the office,
- maintaining distance between employees,
- reconfiguring work spaces, conference room seating and the like,
- installing plexiglass dividers where appropriate,
- limiting the number of employees in the elevators at one time,
- closing or limiting access to common areas that could encourage gatherings,
- encouraging employees to wash hands frequently,
- cleaning work surfaces regularly,
- providing disinfectants at various locations,
- posting signage with instructions on safety precautions,
- working from home if that is feasible,
- maintaining open communication with management for reporting concerns,
- instituting flexible work hours to prevent overcrowding, and
- designing special accommodations for unique situations.
To determine whether special accommodations are needed, the EEOC encourages an interactive process where the employer and employee discuss the best way to accommodate the employee’s particular situation. Be assured that an employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against any employee who reports incidences of COVID-19 at work. I mentioned this protection in my article where I summarized the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who have conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19 and also for those employees with a preexisting mental illness that could be exacerbated by the stress of facing the risk of COVID-19 at work.
The guidance publications by the EEOC and other federal agencies are extensive. A concerned and sensitive employer will know these guidelines and stay current on the updates to those publications.
Is Your Employer Following EEOC Safety Guidelines?
Under the law, employers must demonstrate their good faith efforts to reduce or eliminate COVID-19 hazards in the workplace. If you observe that nothing is being done at work to protect employees, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer to ask how to remedy the problem.
At Gardner Employment Law, we study developments on the coronovirus daily. We stand ready to help, so feel free to contact us.