As the number of positive coronavirus tests continue to rise, so do the number of employers who find themselves asking this precise question. Unfortunately, the fluidity of the situation and the multitude of entities issuing recommendations, make it especially difficult for employers to navigate this situation.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Arizona Department of Health Services, Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and various local health departments, testing entities, and healthcare providers all have issued guidance; some of which is inconsistent and all of which seems to change on a daily basis.
Yet, there are certain universally recommended actions that all employers in this situation should take.
First, the employer must immediately remove the employee that tested positive from the workplace (if they have not already done so) and require the employee to self-isolate as directed by the employee’s medical provider.
The employer is not presently required to close its facility.
Second, although public health services will initiate the contact tracing process, the employer should notify all employees it knows may have been in close contact with the employee.
The CDC defines a “close contact” as “any individual who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to positive specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.”
For several reasons, including privacy issues and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the employer should not disclose the identity of the individual that tested positive.
Employees who have been in close contact with the employee should be removed from the workplace and sent for testing.
There is conflicting guidance on how long these individuals should remain out of the workplace. According to ADHS and Maricopa County, asymptomatic individuals with negative test results may return to work; however, the CDC recommends that potentially exposed employees stay home for 14 days, telework if possible, and self-monitor for symptoms.
The employer also should follow the CDC’s guidelines to properly disinfect the workplace. If it has been less than seven days since the employee was last in the facility, the employer should close off any areas used for prolonged periods of time by the employee and wait 24 hours before cleaning/disinfecting to minimize potential exposure to respiratory droplets.
If it has been seven days or more since the employee used the facility, additional cleaning/disinfection (beyond what is routinely done) is not necessary.
Finally, employers should:
• Inform all employees of their possible exposure in the workplace without disclosing the employee’s identity;
• Educate employees about steps they can take to protect themselves (i.e. wear face coverings, wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoid hugs/handshakes and face touching, cover coughs/sneezes, social distancing, self-health monitoring, stay home if sick, etc.);
• Inform employees of efforts being made to contain the spread; and
• Encourage employees to follow any new policies or procedures related to keeping the workplace safe and healthy.
Juliet S. Burgess is the founder and principal attorney at Burgess Employment Law.