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Handling Contagiously Sick Employees

Question:

One of our employees has had a persistent cough for a few months. It has gotten to the point where other employees have expressed concerns about their health and work environment due to this employee’s perceived illness. What actions can I take? Can I ask the coughing employee if she has seen a doctor – If she is contagious? Do we ask for a doctor’s note telling us she’s not contagious? Can we take other measures such as moving her desk, suggesting the use of a mask or even working from home?

Answer:

With the cold and flu season approaching you may find you have many sick employees over the next few months, though this is a particularly tough situation. There are many issues to consider as you tackle this problem, including employee relations issues that could arise by upsetting the employee by addressing the issue or frustrating the employees raising the concern if you choose not to say something, which might impact morale. On the other hand, you also need to consider some employment legislative issues. For example, you can approach the employee with symptoms to ensure the individual is not contagious under OSHA’s general duty clause. This clause requires employers to provide a safe working environment for employees and is inclusive of eliminating potential health risks that are associated with contagious / infectious diseases. Approaching the employee from that angle and requesting a physician’s statement to ensure that they are not contagious is probably the best way to approach it.

However, be sensitive to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and HIPAA when you approach the employee to avoid further entanglements. If you have not already, you will need to create and implement an infection / contagious disease policy and determine how the company will handle any type of similar disease or condition in the future. This would cover things such as the flu, coronavirus, concerns, etc., – anything that might prevent the spread of such diseases in the workplace.

As with all of our advice, keep in mind that we are not attorneys nor can we provide legal advice of any kind, but rather interpret laws and do our best to advise you on how we might handle a situation from an HR management perspective. If you feel this situation could lead to the disclosure of a disability, you may want to seek legal counsel.

Strategic HR, inc. understands your concerns with the well-being of your employees. We offer expertise in health, safety and security to cover any need you may have from creating a communicable disease policy to developing a business resumption plan for handling unexpected emergencies. Please visit our Health, Safety & Security page for more information on any of these services.