In 2020, employers around the world have been scrambling to adjust to new procedures, new safety measures, and new ways of working in order to combat COVID-19. But what happens when an employee tests positive for COVID-19 – and they’ve come into work? What if there’s been an exposure within the workplace? Here are the four key steps that employers need to take should a positive COVID-19 test impact their organization.
Step 1: Take Care of the Infected Employee
It’s important to treat positive test results and “suspected but unconfirmed” cases of COVID-19 the same. First and foremost, express sympathy and support for the infected team member. They are most likely scared and frustrated, not to mention exhausted from the potential symptoms their body is trying to fight off. When notified, isolate the employee if they are at work. Protect the interviewer who will seek to understand the symptoms, positive test results, and begin the contact tracing process. It’s important that the interviewer remain calm and focus on the facts, such as who the employee may have come in contact with in the past 14 days.
Seek to understand if the source of the infection (if known) was at the workplace or outside. Should the infection have been contracted from inside the workplace, employers should notify workers’ compensation carriers to determine if their employee’s illness is covered in their state. Don’t forget – record the infection in the employer’s OSHA 300 log.
Step 2: Notify Any Impacted Parties
Should the infection have come from outside of the workplace, determine if the employee is eligible for FMLA, FFCRA, Paid Sick Leave, or other leave (i.e. short-term disability).
Next, ask the employee if he or she grants the employer permission to disclose the fact that the employee is infected, preferably get this in writing. If yes, notify the employee’s manager(s) or supervisor(s) that the employee is infected with COVID-19 and is out on leave.
Should you receive inquiries from other team members, or should the employee prefer to not disclose their infection status, respond to inquiries and let manager(s)/supervisor(s) know that the employee is on a leave of absence for non-disciplinary purposes.
Notify any co-workers who may have come into contact with this employee at work within the past 14 days. Let them know that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and may wish to see a healthcare provider, but it is key that you DO NOT identify the infected employee by name. To the extent reasonably possible, avoid making any direct or indirect references that would lead the co-workers to guess the identity of the employee.
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The employer is not required to notify other office locations unless the employee visited those sites within the past 14 days. However, the employer should notify known customers, vendors, or third parties with whom the employee may have come into contact at work (including off-site work contacts and building management if in an office setting).
Step 3: Clean & Disinfect
After the employee and other impacted parties are sent home or appropriately notified, employers must clean and disinfect surfaces and areas that the employee may have come into contact with. The Centers for Disease Control published an extensive list of disinfecting procedures, including the timing and location of cleaning/disinfection of surfaces, how to clean and disinfect a variety of different surfaces, and how to handle personal protective equipment and hand-washing procedures.
Step 4: Report, Report, Report
In the end, regardless of if the employee gave consent to notifying parties in the workplace about his or her infection status, employers should disclose the identity of the employee and any required notification to OSHA or the health department. Employers should also notify local health departments to provide employee information for confirmed COVID positive test results.
Under OSHA recordkeeping requirements, COVID-19 can be a recordable illness if a worker is infected as a result of performing their work-related duties, and the incident meets “all” the OSHA criteria (i.e., confirmed case of COVID-19, work-related, case involves one or more of the general recording criteria – e.g., medical treatment beyond first aid, days away from work, etc.).
Don’t forget – applicable OSHA recordable events should be documented on OSHA logs 300, 300A, or 301.
Receiving a positive COVID-19 test can be stressful for all parties involved – the employee, the employer, and any potentially exposed individuals. An employer’s immediate, calm, and measured response can go far in maintaining a safe and controlled environment at work. To protect the safety and security of team members, employers should have clear processes and procedures prepared ahead of re-entering the workforce.
Special thank you to Angela Dunaway, SPHR, SHRM-CP for writing this edition of our Emerging Issues in HR!