Your Coronavirus Workplace Questions Answered

Mar 10, 2020, 6:27 PM | Updated: 8:13 pm
Commuters arrive from Metro North Railroad trains in Grand Central Station in New York October 19, ...
Commuters arrive from Metro North Railroad trains in Grand Central Station in New York October 19, 2016. (Photo credit TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo credit TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) – As the coronavirus outbreak spreads across the United States, companies and their employees are shifting the way they work and wondering how best to limit contagion in the workplace.

Here are some of the things companies, managers and employees need to know based on current guidance.

Can I be fired if I stay home sick?

An employee can generally be terminated if they don’t show up to work and they don’t have sick leave that would cover the absence, said Krista Slosburg an employment attorney at Stokes Lawrence in Seattle.

But there are exceptions.

Employers that make workers with coronavirus come in may be violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] regulations according to Donna Ballman, who heads an employee advocacy law firm in Florida.

For instance, OSHA requires employers to provide a work environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can sometimes protect a worker’s job in the event they get sick, but it won’t guarantee they get paid while they’re out.

There is no federal mandate that requires companies to offer paid sick leave, and almost a quarter of all US workers don’t get it, according to 2019 government data. Some state and local governments have passed laws that require companies to offer paid sick leave, and an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama requires federal government contractors to offer paid sick leave to their employees.

If you work in a city or state that requires sick leave and you use it, you can’t be terminated or disciplined, according to Slosburg.

“I’d advise employers to be more lenient under these circumstances. The last thing you want is to encourage employees to come to work when they’re sick,” she said.

If a colleague has symptoms, can I tell my boss I am not coming in?

Many companies are being flexible with their work-from-home policies and some are even encouraging employees to work remotely to avoid contagion. But that doesn’t mean you can just decide that you’re not showing up to work.

Not everyone is allowed to work from home, and it’s possible you can be fired if you are not sick and you fail to come into work because you’re concerned about being exposed.

Many employees are considered “at will,” meaning they can be terminated at any time as long as the reason isn’t illegal.

If an employee is worried, employers should take the time to listen to any concerns they have without any consequences, said Michael Elkins, an attorney in Florida who focuses on labor and employment law.

“Employers should be taking all concerns seriously, and should never take action against an employee for raising the concern,” he said.

What happens when workers don’t get paid sick leave?

“People who don’t have paid sick leave can’t afford to take time off if they are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Ballman.

When employees are forced to go to work sick, they risk infecting co-workers and any customers they come in contact with.

More than half of private sector workers in the leisure and hospitality industries, which tend to have a lot of face-to-face time with the public at places like restaurants and hotels, don’t have access to paid sick leave. And nearly 60% of part-time workers don’t get paid sick leave.

Should we avoid in-person meetings?

It may be best to err on the side of caution.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), person-to-person spread of the coronavirus is most likely between people who are within six feet of each other.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) says employers should “consider having conference calls, WebExes, or Skype sessions in lieu of face-to-face meetings to help prevent the spread of germs and potential infection.”

But it might be more of a judgment call, depending on where your office is, how many attendees there will be (the fewer the better) and how worried people feel.

“If you’re in a community where the prevalence of coronavirus is low and people are being diligent about not coming to work sick or after traveling to [an area with an outbreak], the risk is probably very small,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, a senior director in health management at HR consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, who also teaches at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

What’s the best way for companies to control the spread of coronavirus at work?

The CDC recommends employers encourage sick workers to stay home, raise awareness of good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, and regularly clean frequently touched surfaces in the workplace.

“Employers have a duty to maintain a safe work environment,” said Slosburg.

The CDC also advised employers have flexible sick leave policies that are consistent with public health guidance.

Many companies have also canceled large conferences and public events and are limiting meetings.

If you do meet with people, Levin-Scherz strongly advises against shaking hands.

Can managers send a sick worker home?

Yes, managers can. And given the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus and the flu, they should.

SHRM recommends companies “actively encourage sick employees to stay home, send symptomatic employees home until they are able to return to work safely, and require employees returning from high-risk areas to telework during the incubation period [of 14 days].”

If a manager feels an employee’s illness poses a direct threat to colleagues’ safety, the manager may be able to insist the employee be evaluated by a doctor, said Alka Ramchandani-Raj, an attorney specializing in workplace safety at the law firm Littler Mendelson.

Should we avoid group lunches and after work drinks?

There can be many communal activities at work that involve food — a celebratory team lunch, snacks on the conference table or after-work drinks.

Those can still continue assuming you’re in a low-risk area and people are good about not coming in sick, said Levin-Scherz. But he urges taking certain common sense precautions:

Don’t serve chips, popcorn or any other food that requires dipping fingers into a communal bowl.

Don’t talk over a communal plate of food.

If you take a piece of fruit that is in its own skin (e.g., an orange or a banana) rinse it before eating it.

Don’t sip from anyone else’s glass.

Does taking public transportation to work put me at greater risk?

Mass transit potentially may increase your risk of exposure to the coronavirus, but you can do things to manage it, and transit systems are stepping up their cleaning regimens.

Use good respiratory etiquette rules to protect yourself and others, said Dr. Robyn Gershon, a professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

That includes covering your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough or, absent a tissue, sneezing or coughing into the crook of your arm instead of your hand.

Use a tissue when you hold onto a pole.

Be sure to avoid touching your face before washing your hands or using hand sanitizer, which you should do after getting off your train or bus. Gershon also recommends wiping your cellphone and the handles of what you’re carrying with a disinfectant wipe. Then wash your hands again.

And if possible try to avoid crowded trains and buses. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo now recommends New Yorkers let packed subway cars and buses go by and wait for a less crowded one. “It’s the density, the proximity, that we’re trying to reduce,” Cuomo said Sunday.

Lastly, don’t use mass transit if you’re sick since that puts others at risk.

If you have an underlying respiratory condition that might be made worse by coronavirus and you want to work from home instead of taking mass transit, your employer may request a doctor’s note confirming that, Ramchandani-Raj said.

Those over 60 are also at greater risk, according to Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor and longtime adviser to the CDC. The CDC is advising older people to avoid crowds, which can be typical at rush hour, and to “stay home as much as possible” if they live in a community where there is a coronavirus outbreak.

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Your Coronavirus Workplace Questions Answered