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Leigh Schultz, a senior principal attorney in the Kalamazoo office of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone PLC, has been fielding calls from her clients about what action they need to take regarding COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the new coronavirus has been detected in 100 locations internationally at the time this article went to press, including in the U.S. Prior to the national emergency declaration, Schultz told MiBiz that because of the spread of the disease, employers should take care to inform their employees about workplace policies meant to keep people healthy.
What conversations are you having with your clients around coronavirus?
We’re getting calls from clients asking whether or not they need to take affirmative steps in their workplaces, either to notify employees of policy changes or policy requirements as far as time off, as far as keeping their workstations clean, any travel-related restrictions, steps the employer may need to take in the event that this truly becomes a pandemic. We are getting questions just asking what they should be doing right now to communicate with their workers about the coronavirus and about what we need to do to be proactive in our workplace.
Is this something employers have dealt with before?
I haven’t had it become an issue, even with the H1N1 (swine flu) or SARS-Cov-2 outbreak, because they really didn’t infiltrate the U.S. the way there was talk that they might. I’ve never had a pandemic health concern that has really (raised) my clients’ attention before.
What are the immediate steps employers should take in response to coronavirus?
The primary thing we’re talking to the clients about is taking steps to notify their employees that if they’re sick, they should stay home. If they’re feeling any symptoms, they should stay home. They should not expose others in the workplace, and (employers should) communicate whatever leave policy that particular employer might have available to them. They should encourage employees to wash their hands regularly, clean their workstations regularly and let them know that as an employer, they’re also taking steps to do additional cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace to ensure it stays as clean and safe as possible. Employers could put in that communication that they encourage not a lot of hand-to-hand contact with other employees. Certainly any business-related travel to areas where infections have been occurring should be discouraged, if not prohibited by employers.
Can employers take a do-nothing approach at this point?
Most people who have coronavirus are still experiencing mild flu-like or cold-like symptoms. I don’t know that all employers need to get out there and do mass communications for that, especially if you have a workforce that doesn’t travel. A workforce where you do have a lot of business-related travel or large gatherings somewhere, we may end up wanting to cancel those gatherings or conferences. I do think that even now it would be a good idea, for employers who would like to be proactive, to issue a communication about the importance of washing hands regularly, keeping your workstation/work area clean, and staying home if you feel sick. Most employers provide paid time off for sickness, in accordance with the Paid Medical Leave Act and simply under their policies, so they should remind their employees to use that time if they have any concerns about their health.
What policies should employers be aware of?
Policies related to time off. There’s the Family Medical Leave Act, and Michigan has the Paid Medical Leave Act. The FMLA says that employees are eligible for time off if employees or their family members have a serious health condition under that law. If an employee or their family member has a medical condition that qualifies as a serious health condition, they could be eligible for time off. Then we have the Paid Medical Leave Act. That entitles eligible employees to up to 40 hours of paid time off per year for any sickness, for themselves or their family member, as defined by the law.
What changes can employers make internally?
There’s policies that employers have on things like working from home, telecommuting, and I think employers are looking at positions that could possibly be performed from home if need be, so we don’t have to have people coming into the workplace. If this truly becomes a pandemic, employers are encouraged to perhaps be a little bit more flexible on the implementation of some of their policies to ensure that employees aren’t exposed unnecessarily.
Should employers be restricting travel at this point?
Most clients are taking the position that employees should cease traveling to any region where there has been a true outbreak, and that would be the international regions. There are states now in the U.S. where there have been reported cases. Travel to China, Italy and other international destinations is something most employers are putting a stop to. And there are the U.S. imposed travel bans that apply.
You have also focused on nondiscrimination policies in your talks with clients. Why is that?
Employers certainly want to make sure people aren’t assuming that because somebody is of a certain race or national origin that they would have a higher chance of exposure. We still have to be mindful of nondiscrimination laws and respect diversity in the workplace, and not allow people to treat each other differently for fear of anything. There’s no basis for anyone to assume that because someone is a certain race or national origin that they have a disease.
When it comes to checking on employees, what can employers ask?
When it comes to determining whether someone should be working or not working, before a pandemic breaks, we’re not supposed to ask employees questions about potential medical conditions. They shouldn’t be walking around asking, ‘Do you have symptoms?’ But they can certainly ask general questions. ‘If we do have this outbreak and it does become a pandemic, will you have difficulty getting to work because of public transportation issues or otherwise?’
Overall, how do your clients seem to be thinking about coronavirus?
I’m finding that most people at this point are not panicking. The reports are that most of the symptoms are exhibiting themselves in more mild symptoms and (people) might not know they have the condition. I don’t think employers yet, at least in this region, are feeling overwhelmingly concerned about it. They’re mindful of it, they’re thinking about it, they’re certainly proactive and care about protecting their workers, but they’re not panicking.