workplace COVID-19

Photo by Neeraj Kumar

Workplace COVID-19: An Employee Tested Positive — Now What?

There are more than 107 million recorded COVID-19 cases worldwide. As economies begin progressively reopening after lockdowns, it’s increasingly likely that workplace COVID-19 will hit your business; that one or more of your workers will test positive for the virus or show symptoms that make them suspected cases.

Here’s what to do if that happens…

1. Keep the Employee Away from Others

You could hear about an employee testing positive for COVID-19 in several ways. Maybe they call you during an off day, say they’re feeling sick with symptoms often associated with the virus, and are getting a test in a few hours. Or maybe someone feels fine when showing up for a shift but develops symptoms during the workday. In either case, you must isolate that person as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

If they are not currently at work, instruct them to stay home according to the protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That organization says people with COVID-19 should remain at home for ten days after symptom onset and once they’ve been fever-free for at least 24 hours. Moreover, the person should notice a general improvement in symptoms during isolation.

However, the CDC also clarified that some individuals might require isolation for up to 20 days. Such cases typically occur in patients with severe cases or those with compromised immune systems.

When a person develops symptoms at work, send them home immediately. If that individual needs to wait at work, such as until someone they live with arrives to pick them up, it’s ideal to isolate them in a closed room not typically used for communal purposes. The above rules about isolation apply to them, too.

2. Know What You Can and Cannot Do to Learn About an Employee’s Condition

When an employee becomes a suspected or positive case, your first inclination may be to learn as many details as possible about the circumstances. Similarly, you might consider having them produce a negative COVID-19 test result before returning to work.

First, bear in mind that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a long list of frequently asked questions that clarify what you can and cannot do under the law in these situations. For example, you cannot ask an employee if their family members have had COVID-19 or been in close contact with infected people. However, it’s OK to broaden your question to determine whether the employee has been near a possibly infected person.

Moreover, you cannot single out an employee and subject them to a screening test or questionnaire without a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that they have the virus. For example, maybe you’re in the break room and notice an employee coughing frequently.  Or perhaps an employee tells a colleague that they haven’t been able to smell or taste anything all day. In those cases, the employee’s common symptoms meet the criteria for objective evidence.

There are also many variations over return-to-work testing. The EEOC and CDC permit but discourage requiring a negative test before allowing an employee back to work. Though, state and local ordinances may prohibit making an employee get tested before coming back to work.

3. Understand the Applicable Labor Laws

It’s also necessary to understand the labor laws associated with workplace COVID-19 and remember that some vary by location. For example, Pennsylvanian workers must report their illnesses within 21 days of onset to receive full workers’ compensation coverage.

Federal laws in the United States also changed recently, so employers are no longer legally required to provide family and medical leave to COVID-19 patients. However, companies can voluntarily provide it to workers through March 31, 2021. The associated employer tax credits also remain in effect until that date.

If you hadn’t taken the time to learn about how COVID-19 affects labor laws yet, now is a great time. Research what laws apply to your company at the local, state, and federal levels.

4. Follow Recommended Cleaning Protocols

COVID-19 required many businesses to adopt stricter cleaning measures. You should follow those all the time, of course – but be diligent after hearing that an employee tested positive for the virus.

Follow procedures recommended by the CDC and determine whether you need to close your business to carry them out. Hopefully, you already have a cleaning plan. If not, again – now is an excellent time to develop a company-wide sanitization plan.

Closing your business may be something you want to avoid, especially if it causes media attention. However, consider that people will be more likely to perceive you as responsible if you take prompt, decisive action rather than putting others at risk.

5. Determine Whether You Will Inform Workers

You may find it surprising that no federal laws require you to tell other workers about a positive case associated with a colleague. Additionally, only three states require employers to give such notifications.

However, even if there is no legal obligation for you to provide the information, keeping quiet could have unwanted consequences.

Many employees report hearing the news from co-workers and feel their bosses betrayed them by not disclosing the details. Bear in mind, too, that there are different steps to take if you know someone was in close contact with a sick worker. You may not deem it necessary to tell the whole workforce, but informing people who were near an infected individual for an entire workday is the right thing to do. And in the process, as an employer, you are helping stop the spread and are doing everything you can to keep people safe.

Workplace COVID-19: Quick Action Minimizes Complications

It can be unsettling when you hear that a worker has COVID-19. While taking action, show humanity and genuine care to the infected person and any other affected parties. A short phone call to check on the employee during their recovery shows them and the whole workforce that you care as much about the people doing the work as the tasks they perform.

The better prepared you are for workplace COVID-19 infections, the easier it will be to effectively handle those incidents. Besides following the suggestions here, stay abreast of recent developments that may impact your plan and your course of action. The pandemic is an evolving situation, which means public health guidelines may change with relatively short notice.

Stay informed. Remain prepared. And act swiftly.