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Back in 2009, it was hard not to miss press coverage of the H1N1 virus.  In fact, I wrote a series of posts about how employers could prepare for a possible pandemic while still complying with employment laws.

Flash forward to now, and press reports are coming out daily about a new (novel) coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has been detected in China and perhaps originating in Wuhan City. 

And yesterday, there was a report of a patient in Washington State who was diagnosed with the virus as well. The CDC also raised its travel alert status to Level 2. The WHO is considering whether to label this a “public health emergency of international concern”.

There are way too many questions right now about the coronavirus — whether it can be contained, how lethal it is, how easy it can transmitted — but there’s no doubt a few HR people who are already starting to think “What If It Spreads?”

A few years ago, the CDC released workplace guidance for dealing with a pandemic flu. While the influenza virus is notable different than a coronavirus, it seems a good place to start until the CDC provides new guidance on the coronavirus.

The pandemic flu guidance “provides information about nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) and their use during a flu pandemic. NPIs are actions, apart from getting vaccinated and taking antiviral medications, that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of respiratory illnesses like pandemic flu.”

Back in 2009, I recapped the CDC’s H1N1 flu guidance in a post; while it’s still too early to know how much of this will be applicable to the current outbreak of coronavirus, there’s no doubt that some general principles still apply.

1. Preparation & Communication

While some large multi-national corporations have developed  crisis-management guidelines to deal with natural disasters or pandemics, smaller companies haven’t had that luxury.

Employers should be sure to convey accurate information to the workforce including preventative measures that employees can implement on their own.

Beyond that, employers should think about (though not implement as of yet) what plans may be if this outbreak becomes more widespread and more serious.

  • Will you allow for telecommuting?
  • Is your infrastructure set up so that you have the capability TO telecommute?
  • Will you implement special leave policies to prevent employees from infecting others in the workplace?

You don’t need answers to all these questions yet but you should start to anticipate what those questions may be.

2. Addressing Day-To-Day Issues — The sick employee or the closed school

If and when the coronavirus becomes more prevalent in the community, specific employers may be impacted directly.

Employers may have more practical considerations though that they will need to deal with.

For example, if an employee’s child becomes ill, can that employee take FMLA leave? (Probably, though review your policies.)

If the employee is sick, can you ask that employee to stay home or work from home during the length of the illness?

But a tougher question comes up if schools close. What then?

3. Providing a Reasonably Safe Workplace

Perhaps overlooked during most times, OSHA laws require employers to provide reasonably safe workplaces. What that will mean will depend on the type of workplace you have. Employers whose employees have a significant amount of interaction with the public may have different obligations from those employers whose employees sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day without much interaction with fellow employees, much less the public.

OSHA’s guidance on pandemics is available here.  

What does OSHA believe employers should do in case of a pandemic?

According to OSHA, employers should ensure that their workers understand:

  • Differences between seasonal epidemics and worldwide pandemic disease outbreaks;
  • Which job activities may put them at risk for exposure to sources of infection;
  • What options may be available for working remotely, or utilizing an employer’s flexible leave policy when they are sick;
  • Social distancing strategies, including avoiding close physical contact (e.g., shaking hands) and large gatherings of people;
  • Good hygiene and appropriate disinfection procedures;
  • What personal protective equipment (PPE) is available, and how to wear, use, clean and store it properly;
  • What medical services (e.g., vaccination, postexposure medication) may be available to them; and
  • How supervisors will provide updated pandemic-related communications, and where to direct their questions.

Bottom Line

While it seems too early to implement any measures in the United States at present, employers may want to at least start having conversations about the “what ifs” with the novel coronavirus.

The CDC advises that “there is much more to learn about how the 2019-nCoV virus spreads, severity of associated illness, and other features of the virus. Investigations are ongoing. While CDC considers this is a serious public health concern, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time. ”

Employers that have employees that travel or work overseas, however, may have to confront the issue sooner rather than later.

It’s a rapidly changing situation and employers would be wise to stay up to date on the news.

Editor’s Note: This post is dated January 22, 2020. Be sure to check this blog, and the CDC and OSHA websites for the most up-to-date information.