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Employment Issues During the Fast-Changing COVID-19 Response

Since March 11, U.S. employers have gone from planning for a possible pandemic to widespread voluntary self-isolation, and an increase in mandatory government restrictions to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. Many businesses have seen dramatic drops in customers. During RMA’s recent Risk Readiness Webinar EXTRA, offered complimentary to participants, Robert Duston, Partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, provided practical answers to the most common questions facing employers, and a high-level analysis of new federal legislation.

Duston offered pre-exposure and post-exposure guidance for employers navigating these uncharted waters. Employees who have symptoms of respiratory illness should stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever, signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines. Companies’ sick leave policies should be flexible and consistent with public health guidance and employees should be made aware of these policies.

If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Instruct employees exposed to a co-worker with COVID-19 to contact their local health agency and review CDC guidance on how to conduct a risk assessment.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was recently enacted on March 18, 2020 and will be effective within 15 days (on April 2), expiring on December 31, 2020. The FFCRA includes mandatory paid sick leave and paid family medical leave for covered employers, and tax credits and efforts to stabilize and implement effective unemployment compensation practices. Most private sector employees with fewer than 500 employees and many public sector employers, regardless of size, are covered for two weeks (80 hours) of paid sick time for full-time employees and pro rata for part-time employees. Some of the covered reasons for paid sick leave include: the employee is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19; the employee has been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19; the employee needs to care for or assist a family member for the same reasons that an employee may need sick leave; to care for the child of an employee if their school or childcare facility is closed, or the childcare provider is unavailable due to coronavirus precautions; to name a few.

Many institutions likely have business interruption plans that can be applied in this crisis. Duston recommended that institutions take the following actions: determine the line of communication to employees in the event of critical updates, or exposure (email/text alert systems); create a reporting structure for employees who may need to call out of work, or report potential exposure; determine essential versus non-essential employees, contractors, and vendors, and who will notify employees whether their position is essential; identify classifications of employees who have the capacity to work from home; and determine who will communicate with employees regarding any changes in business travel.

Duston also discussed the importance of adhering to the aforementioned guidance when states loosen stay-at-home restrictions. With employees eventually returning to the workplace, and the potential for possible waves of the virus, institutions need to keep safeguards in place in the office to avoid potential hazards and stay compliant with OSHA standards.

For the full presentation, download the recording here.