Reviewing Plans and Policies for Coronavirus

March 9, 2020

Reviewing Plans and Policies for Coronavirus

More states and countries are reporting cases of coronavirus, and employers around the world are educating their workforces on how to prevent the spread of the virus. Employers in the U.S. should review their infectious-disease management plans. If they don't have these plans, now is the time to create them. Reviewing and communicating sick leave policies, telehealth options and other wellness program aspects are also important. 

Infectious-Disease Management Plans

Many organizations, particularly multinationals, have infectious-disease management plans, but the majority do not, said John Beattie, a principal consultant with Sungard Availability Services in Wayne, Pa. 

An effective pandemic plan addresses such topics as:

  • Workplace safety precautions.
  • Employee travel restrictions.
  • Provisions for stranded travelers unable to return home.
  • Mandatory medical check-ups, vaccinations or medication.
  • Mandatory reporting of exposure, such as employees reporting to employers and employers reporting to public health authorities.
  • Employee quarantine or isolation.
  • Facility shutdowns.

Plans should detail how to communicate with employees about staying away from work when they are sick and telecommuting if necessary, Beattie noted.

"Giving a sense of calm is important if there is an outbreak," he added. "Employees should feel like they're in good hands with management and that managers are concerned about them."

Even if companies don't have pandemic policies, many have disaster-preparedness policies, which are analogous, said Joseph Deng, an attorney with Baker McKenzie in Los Angeles. If an office is in the path of the pandemic, it should shut down, just as it would if it were in the path of a hurricane or wildfire, he noted.

Be Reasonable in Applying Policies

In implementing an infectious-disease management plan, employers should be reasonable in how they apply their policies, Deng said. How long a company keeps a facility shut in the event of a pandemic is a key consideration. In China, that issue is raising questions about whether there will be furloughs, in which case employees will need to be notified and paid at a furlough rate, he stated.

"This will pass. Don't forget about the needs of employees," Deng said. "How will you turn on lights again and keep the workforce engaged so you come out stronger and more resilient?"

No Doctor's Note Required

"Do not require a health care provider's note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as health care provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way," the CDC advised.

Employers, however, "should be cautious about providing medical advice to sick employees," advised Danielle Capilla, director of compliance and employee benefits at Alera Group, an employee benefits and financial services firm. "Guiding employees to speak with their physician, their local health department, and to use telemedicine as appropriate is the best course of action."

Be Lenient with Sick Leave

The CDC advises employers to "ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies."

Employers can require employees who exhibit coronavirus symptoms to stay home until they are symptom free, said Mark Neuberger, a litigation attorney in the Miami office of law firm Foley & Lardner LLP. Similarly, if an employee is returning from a country designated by the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) as having high risk for COVID-19 transmission, employers can require that they wait 14 days before returning to the workplace.

Be cautious, though, and think about modifying your attendance policies. Requiring these quarantines could encourage hourly workers who have no remaining paid sick days or paid time off (PTO) not to reveal that they may pose a risk to others.

"If employers force someone to stay home for two weeks without pay or make them use precious PTO, they may push people to hide where they have been or what symptoms they are experiencing, which will defeat planning to ensure that management is taking all reasonable steps to prevent the illness from spreading through the workplace," Neuberger said.

While recognizing there is a possibility for abuse by employees who would like to stay home for two weeks, said Jennifer Ho, vice president of human resources at Ascentis, a human capital management software firm based in Minneapolis. “It really is up to employers to have best practices and training for managers on how to handle situations like this." 

There's another sick leave complication employers may face: If public health officials order employees or their family members quarantined for up to two weeks because they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or visited a high-risk area, those being quarantined—if they show no symptoms—may not be covered by their employer's sick or disability leave policy. For quarantined employees whose jobs can't be performed remotely, employers should consider their response and may choose to extend paid leave benefits to cover this situation. Be mindful of new or part-time employees that may not be covered by sick leave benefits. 

Encourage Workers to Use Telehealth

"If telehealth is an option for your employees, advise them to make use of it," said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at DirectPath, a benefits education, enrollment and health care transparency firm based in Burlington, Mass. "The doctor will be able to assess whether the employee needs to come in for testing or can be treated at home. This minimizes the risk of infecting others in the office waiting room or getting infected themselves" if it turns out that they have a cold or the flu.

For employees without a telehealth plan, "the best course of action is to call their health provider if they have one, their local urgent care clinic, or—in a pinch— the local ER and describe their symptoms. Tests are limited at this point and will be reserved for those who are severely ill, recently traveled to affected countries or have interacted with those who have," Buckey pointed out.

Mary Kay O'Neill, a partner at HR consultancy Mercer, advise companies not to overlook telehealth for treating emotional health issues. “Especially if people are quarantined for weeks on end. Epidemics like this can increase anxiety and depression among people, resulting in a greater need for these services," she said. Employee assistance programs are another option as well.

When to Use FMLA

For long-term absence, most employees dealing with their own or a family member's serious illness can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

"If it turns out to be coronavirus, the employee will likely be out for two weeks or more, so short-term disability and FMLA may come into play," Buckey said.

While generally a doctor's certification is needed for FMLA leave, "if an employer understands the employee has a serious health condition within the meaning of the FMLA, the employer is free to waive the requirement to provide documentation," said Neuberger. "That can be a management decision."

At the same time, he noted, employers may have legitimate concerns about people who try to "milk the system and take 12 weeks off, claiming they have something they don't," he said. "It's a balancing act. But under these circumstances, being flexible is the better way to go."

Caution vs. Panic

Management, Neuberger said, "has to deal with irrational fears in a rational way, by providing good information and staying on top of rapidly changing advice posted by the CDC and WHO, and assigning someone to monitor those websites every day," he advised.

"It's important to be cautious, to be up to date and to stay informed," Ho said. "It's equally important to deploy common sense."

The Authors: 

Deborah Stadtler is Managing Editor at SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy.