As Arkansas learns of its first presumptive case of coronavirus (COVID-19
it seems inevitable that the virus will have at least some impact on day-to-day activities. The precise extent and duration of that impact remain to be seen. In light of these unusual circumstances, the best mantra we could advise your business is to expect the best, but prepare for the worst.
Preparation will look different for every business, but we encourage all of our clients to consider the following:
Plan and Communicate
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends employers identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team with defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness and response planning
This team should include staff with expertise in equal opportunity laws.
Remember, the ADA prohibits an employer from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees
they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.
For example, asking an employee whether his immune system is compromised would be a disability-related inquiry since a weak or compromised immune system is closely associated with conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS. Asking employees about signs and symptoms of COVID-19, or possible exposure to the virus, is not likely to elicit information about a disability, and is therefore permissible.
Employers may place employees on leave if the employee poses a direct health or safety threat to the workforce by virtue of contracting or coming into contact with coronavirus.
means “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation.”
Assessments about whether an employee poses a direct threat must be based on objective, factual information rather than subjective perceptions or irrational fears. Employers should pay close attention to CDC recommendations in assessing whether an employee poses a direct threat.
If employees self-report that they have a disability putting them at high risk for complications from COVID-19, employers must consider reasonable accommodations for these employees just as they would under any other circumstance. As discussed further below, flexible leave policies are likely a reasonable accommodation employers should consider.
In the event of office closures, employers should also continue providing the same reasonable accommodations at telework sites as are available at the workplace. For example, if a vision-impaired employee requires a certain type of screen reader for her officer computer, the employer must provide the employee with a screen reader to permit the employee to telework.
Public health officials are encouraging employers to adopt flexible leave policies for those who have contracted or been exposed to the virus. This is to allow for “social distancing” to help prevent further spread of the virus. Companies such as Walmart have implemented emergency leave policies.
Walmart’s policy allows employees to stay home if they are unable to work or are uncomfortable at work, and it waives Walmart’s usual attendance occurrence policy at least through the end of April. Further, the policy provides two weeks of paid leave for individuals who are required to quarantine by a government agency or by Walmart. Many companies have also taken measures to make telework available for more employees in anticipation of potential office closures. These are just some of the measure you may consider as you determine the best way to prepare your company.
Employers may also have to be more flexible in their requirement to provide a doctor’s note for sick leave. It may become difficult for employees to access medical providers if medical facilities become extremely busy. Thus, employers may consider accepting other forms of documentation apart from a signed doctor’s note. Employers should still consider the risk to other employees before allowing employees who have been diagnosed with coronavirus to return to work.
Covered employees may also request FMLA leave if they contract Coronavirus or need to care for a family member who has. While FMLA leave generally requires a doctor’s certification, employers are free to waive the documentation requirement if they understand the employee has a serious health condition within the meaning of the FMLA. Coronavirus likely qualifies as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA. Employers should continue to issue their usual FMLA notices including the notice of eligibility and rights and responsibilities and designation notice.