The Impact of Coronavirus on the Workplace

James R. Becker, Jr.

March 12, 2020

During this time with the widespread coronavirus outbreaks, employers need to spend some time thinking about how to address the issues that will invariably occur.

First, employers must deal with their employees.  Obviously, medical experts and common sense require keeping the employee out of the workplace.  However, that does not answer all of the questions that employers will have.  The law that is most applicable to this is the Family and Medical and Leave Act.  Clicking on the link will take you to our firm’s page that describes the legal details of this law and employers should be familiar with this.  Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Act mandates that employers protect the health of their employees.  According to OSHA, this requires that employers promptly identify and isolate potentially infected individuals.

Next, is the question about inquiring into an employee’s travel and health.  We all know that many workers, especially the lower income workers, will come into work while they are sick.  In this case, the Americans with Disabilities Act will generally prohibit employer inquiry into the health conditions of the employee.  However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided guidance that during a pandemic, these sorts of inquiries will not violate the ADA provided that they are related to the conditions surrounding the pandemic.  In fact, the EEOC’s guidance provides sample approved questions for employers to use.

With all of the shutdowns, is an employee entitled to pay during a shutdown?  If a nonexempt employee is not performing work, with some very limited exceptions, the employer is not obligated to pay the employee.  Exempt employees are more complicated because of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Under the FLSA, employers have to pay an exempt employee his or her salary for any workweek in which work is performed by the employee.  If the employee stays home and does work, then the full salary must be paid.  Additionally, if the employee works any part of the workweek, then the full salary is owed.  However, if the employee cannot work from home and does no work for the workweek, then no salary is owed for that time.  Of course, if the employer has any paid time off policy that needs to be followed.

Finally, what can the employer say if an employee is diagnosed as having COVID-19?  As a general matter, healthcare information privacy laws prohibit disclosing the identity of the employee who has the disease.  However, an employer should disclose to co-workers that they have potentially been exposed to the disease without disclosing the identity of the now quarantined individual.

The worldwide spread of this virus has dramatically altered how we interact with one another and the world around us.  However, it is not completely without precedent (think about the H1N1 influenza pandemic) and with some guidance and careful planning employers and employees can successfully navigate these changing times.