What To Do When an Employee Tests Positive for COVID-19

13 Jul

COVID 19 what to do

By: Robin E. Largent  July 3, 2020 Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP © 2020

We have been getting more and more questions from employers about what to do if they have an employee who reports that they have tested positive for COVID-19.  Cal-OSHA likely has been getting similar inquiries and, as a result, recently issued guidance for employers on the specific topic of handling outbreaks in the workplace.  That guidance is here.  Importantly, Cal-OSHA cautions that even a single positive case may quickly turn into an outbreak among employees.  Furthermore, because workplace circumstances and settings vary greatly, Cal-OSHA recommends that employers contact and consult with their local health department to plan and coordinate a response.

In addition to working with the local health department on specific responses protocols, the employer also must keep in mind Cal-OSHA reporting requirements.  Employers must report serious injuries, illnesses or deaths in the workplace immediately.  Cal-OSHA instructs that for COVID-19 purposes, this means COVID-19 related inpatient hospitalizations or deaths, and employers should report these events even if work-relatedness is uncertain.

Employers must also keep in mind Governor Newsom’s May 6, 2020 Executive Order providing, for workers’ compensation coverage purposes, that any case of COVID-19 contracted between March 19, 2020 and July 5, 2020 by an employee who works outside the home, is presumed to have occurred in the course of employment.  This presumption is rebuttable (e.g. the employee lives with a non-employee who had COVID-19), but the employer does not get to decide whether or not the virus was contracted at work.  The employer should give the employee a work comp form and let the carrier determine coverage.

Although the employer should confer with the local health department on specific protocols for handling a workplace outbreak involving one or more employees, some things that employers will need to consider are the following:

  • Informing coworkers who may have come into contact with the infected employee that an employee (maintain confidentiality of the employee’s identity to the extent practicable) has tested positive;
  • Consider providing COVID-19 testing for other employees.  Remember that if testing is required by the employer, the expense must be paid for by the employer, and the employees must be paid for the time they spend undergoing testing.  Also remember that employees cannot be required to undergo COVID-19 antibody testing, but only testing for active infection.
  • Where testing is not feasible, try to utilize contact tracing to identify those who have had close contact with the infected employee, and advise those close contacts to quarantine at home for 14 days from their last known contact with the infected employee.  If the outbreak involves numerous employees with close contacts with the infected employee, consider closing the worksite temporarily and advising all employees to quarantine.  “Close contact” means spending 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive employee during their infectious period, which includes 48 hours before they became symptomatic.
  • While at home, quarantined employees should monitor for any potential symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, shortness of breath, cough, loss of taste/smell, congestion/runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, chills, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea) and should be encouraged to get a COVID-19 test if they develop symptoms.
  • The work area used by the infected employee(s) must be cleaned and disinfected (and such cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace should be done regularly).
  • Employees who are still reporting to work should not share equipment (particularly equipment that comes into contact with the face or mouth, such as telephones and headsets), and employees must be reminded to follow safety protocols established by the CDF and local guidance (including wearing face coverings and social distancing).  Of course, all employees should be reminded not to report to work with symptoms.

Employers must also follow current guidance on when it is safe to allow an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19 to return to work.  The answer varies depending on whether the employee has symptoms or is asymptomatic.  The answer also varies depending on whether COVID-19 testing is available and utilized.  According to the CDC guidance, if an employee tests positive and has symptoms, the employee may return to the workplace either:  (1) 72 hours after the employee is fever-free (without the use of fever-reducing medicine), AND respiratory symptoms (cough, shortness of breath) have improved, AND at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared; OR (2) after the employee has tested negative for COVID-19 two consecutive times, at least 24 hours apart, and employee is fever-free (without use of fever reducing medicine) and any respiratory symptoms have improved.

If an employee tests positive but is asymptomatic, the employee may return to the workplace (1) after at least 10 days have passed since they tested positive if they still have not developed any symptoms; or (2) after the employee has two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests, at least 24 hours apart.  Cal-OSHA advises that employers defer to their local health department on specific return to work criteria that they should follow.

Of course, any time an employee cannot work due to COVID-19 (testing positive, being ill with symptoms, or being quarantined due to close contact with an infected individual), the employer needs to be sure the employee is informed of paid time off rights and provided with applicable paid time off.  This may include paid sick leave under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and/or state and local paid sick leave laws.  The cities of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Long Beach all have COVID-19 sick leave ordinances that supplement pre-existing paid sick leave and/or apply to employers who are not covered by the FFCRA.  By way of reminder, the FFCRA provides up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to employees who work for private sector employers with less than 500 employees (or who work for a public employer).

If you are an employer with 50 or more employees and you have an employee who becomes seriously ill with COVID-19 (e.g. the employee is hospitalized), keep in mind that this could also trigger a lengthier entitlement to up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA/CFRA.

CA Court Grants TRO in Fast Food Covid-19 Case

On June 16, 2020, several employees at a McDonald’s franchise in Oakland, California filed a lawsuit against their employer, in a matter entitled Hernandez v. VES McDonald’s (No. RG20064825, Superior Court of California, County of Alameda). The lawsuit consists of five plaintiffs, three of whom are employees who allege that they became sick with COVID-19 while working at the restaurant and “unknowingly” spread the disease to family and other members in their communities. The fourth is the infant son of one of the plaintiffs who allegedly contracted COVID-19 from his mother. The final plaintiff is an employee who worked in the same restaurant. At the time the complaint was filed, he had not yet tested positive for COVID-19 but “fears becoming infected and spreading the disease to others.”

The plaintiffs allege causes of action for public nuisance, unfair and unlawful business practices, and violations of Oakland’s Emergency Paid Sick Leave Ordinance. The Oakland lawsuit comes approximately one month after employees at a Chicago-area McDonald’s filed suit alleging that their employer failed to take measures to keep them safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 as a “public nuisance” is a novel theory being explored by a number of aggressive plaintiffs’ counsel in California. California Civil Code Section 3480 provides: “A public nuisance is one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal.”

On June 22, 2020, Judge Patrick R. McKinney of the Superior Court of California, County of Alameda issued a temporary restraining order (TRO). Pursuant to the TRO, the Oakland franchise will remain closed until July 2, 2020, at which point the court will determine whether a preliminary injunction should be issued. The court ordered that the franchise may reopen and resume operations before July 2, pending approval from the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health.

Judge_gavel

Addressing Race Discrimination Complaints in the Workplace

July 6, 2020

Following recent events, employers may experience an increase in the number of race discrimination complaints in the workplace. Many organisations in the United Kingdom, in the United States, and globally have made public statements to reinforce their commitment to racial equality.

General Complaints of Race Discrimination

Not all race discrimination complaints raised in the workplace are from existing or former employees; complaints may be made from individuals outside the organisation relating to the culture of the workplace and may not be specific. Such complaints could be from a member of the public, an external social media platform, or could even be anonymous. It is important that organisations take such complaints seriously. Employers may want to address such complaints promptly and take appropriate action where necessary. Although a complaint may not be specific, employers still may want to investigate it.

A first step may be to explore the allegation with the complainant—if the complainant is known—in more detail to enable a full investigation to be carried out. If that is not possible, a more general cultural investigation may be worthwhile in order to determine if there is any truth behind the allegations. Employers may consider appointing an investigator to speak to a small group of employees about their experiences working for the company and follow up on any issues that may become known. The group of employees could be identified through asking people to volunteer, chosen at random, or individually selected to represent a cross-section of the organisation. The investigator could be someone internal (seen as neutral), or alternatively, an external investigator could be appointed.

Anonymous Complaints

Dealing with anonymous complaints can be difficult for employers, especially when it is not clear as to where the complaints originated. This however, does not mean that complaints should be ignored. Where it is not known if a complainant is external, employers may want to be cautious when sharing details about an investigation or the findings unless the complainant reveals his or her identity. In a situation where contact can be made with the complainant despite his or her anonymity—for example, the organisation receives an email that does not identify the sender—then the complainant may be willing to speak, provided it is on an anonymous basis. In this situation, an employer may want to appoint an impartial person to investigate the allegations, such as an external investigator. Employers may want to assure the complainant that his or her anonymity will be protected and any victimisation will not be tolerated.

How Can Employers Foster Non-discriminatory Workplaces?

Organisations may want to review their non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies (which may be included within a respectful workplace policy) to ensure they include specific examples of conduct that would amount to racial harassment, making sure it is clear that such conduct will not be tolerated. Employers also may want to reiterate that any employee who breaches the organisation’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies may be subject to disciplinary action, which could include termination of employment.

Employers also may want to train managers on the policies so that they are competent to handle discriminatory or harassing behaviour that may arise in the workplace.

Employers may want to consider developing a focus group or employee forum to deal with diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace. The purpose of the group/forum would be to form a bridge between employees and senior management to report diversity issues, and a resource to whom employees can address complaints (including anonymous complaints) in addition to human resources.

Employers that take the time to consider the above action points may find they will encourage diverse and inclusive workplaces where all employees feel valued and supported.

Daniella McGuigan is a partner is the London office of Ogletree Deakins.

Addressing Race Discrimination

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