What Employers Need to Be Prepared for COVID-19

As communities around the world contend with the outbreak of COVID-19, people are asking themselves what precautions they should take for themselves, and how to approach daily life in the days, weeks, months to come.

For employers, these questions loom large with the responsibility of managing entire workplaces and a multitude of employees. To help keep Houston employers informed about the most important considerations, Memorial Hermann sat down with our very own Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, an expert in Preventative Medicine and Occupational and Environmental Health.

While COVID-19 is new and more information about this particular virus is unfolding daily, Dr. Davidson shared insights that can help employers make more informed decisions about what they can do for their business and employees moving forward.

We’re still learning about the ways this virus is spread. How can employers best protect employees from exposure in the workplace?

Employers should actively encourage sick employees—or employees who are feeling unwell—to stay home. While we’re continuing to learn about COVID-19, we know that it’s spread through relatively close contact. Employers can take preventative steps to limit potential spread, and help make employees make smart decisions in the process, by restricting business-related travel and events.

If an employee recently returned from traveling to an area with a coronavirus outbreak, you may ask those employees to complete a self-monitoring quarantine period at home for up to 14 days after returning. While employers may not know the full travel history of every single employee, they can encourage employees to self-identify and follow CDC guidelines for the safety and protection of everyone around them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that employees should:

  • Stay home if they have respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath) and/or a temperature above 100.4 F.
  • Leave work if they develop these symptoms while at the workplace.
  • Shield coughs and sneezes with a tissue, elbow, or shoulder (not the bare hands).
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Practice social distancing by avoiding large meetings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet) from others when possible.

How should employers be communicating with employees?

With calmness and confidence. We live in a 24-hour news cycle where we receive nonstop updates and information, which can be helpful, but can also increase people’s anxiety and stress related to COVID-19. Leaders can help lessen the general fear and paranoia among employees with clear communication that stays to the facts and emphasizes the importance of taking precautions—pointing people in the direction of official resources, like those the CDC has created and continues to update. Additionally, providing regular updates as company decisions are made can help ensure employees feel cared for and informed, and keep businesses running more smoothly, too.

When should employers send non-essential staff home to work from home?

City officials, sports organizations and others have made the difficult, yet necessary decision to cancel large events and gatherings. Of course, the decision will be different for every company. But, ask yourself if there’s a growing community spread—and if you can play role in helping limit that community spread.

Employers should certainly think about what their workforce can do from home—if meetings can be attended via conference call rather than in-person, or if files can be securely accessed and shared remotely.

Of course, working from home is not a reality for every industry or employee. To help manage this, create modified work plans to account for the change while maintaining production. What does a 20% or 30% change look like in staff availability? Proactively solving for those reconfigurations or reallocations will be helpful in the event you need to make a change.

To that end, the CDC is also encouraging employers to have PTO and return-to-work policies in place. A review of benefits policies is also wise. If alternative work arrangements are needed, how is the company staffed, but also how is it handling employee expectations? 

What overall health advice or best practices can you give related to COVID-19?

First and foremost, reference CDC homecare guidelines and care practices. Consider this being an item you circulate to your employees. Close contact isn’t just reserved for large events or travel—it can also happen in the home.

Q. What happens if an employee contracts COVID-19?

A. First and foremost, support them in their recovery process. Their health and recovery is the most important thing. Employers should also inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. However, you shouldn’t disclose the identity of the quarantined employee because confidentiality requirements under federal law. (For more on employers’ role, see the CDC’s “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers” here.)

The CDC homecare guidelines and care practices is a great resource to share with employees or anyone who is looking to understand what to do in the event they contract the virus, or someone close to them does. Prevailing wisdom includes keeping your distance—at least six feet—and avoiding shared spaces, as well as not sharing utensils or any other objects, and maintaining good hygiene.

On top of following CDC guidelines, it’s important for bodies to be at their best to fight off potential infection. Staying hydrated, eating well, and getting good rest are key. Encourage your employees to take care of themselves, and reinforce that message with company decisions and communications.

Health and safety are always our top priorities at Memorial Hermann. This article reflects our perspective as of March 12, 2020, and we will update it regularly as COVID-19 evolves.

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Ali Vise