News regarding the new coronavirus has been prominent in the media in recent weeks as the virus has continued to spread. The first case was reported on December 31, 2019 in Wuhan, China and officials now report over 42,000 confirmed cases and 1,000 deaths worldwide. Fortunately, the immediate risk to the general population is still considered low. Nevertheless, the coronavirus outbreak raises many issues for employers. Although it is not possible to provide comprehensive guidance in this brief Advisory, employers should consider some basic issues in the context of their general duty to take reasonable steps to provide employees with a safe workplace.

Travel to China and Other Destinations 

On January 31, the State Department issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory for all of China, recommending against travel into the country. In light of the Advisory, employers should not require employees to travel into China at this time. The Advisory does not apply to other countries, but employers should monitor the continued spread of the virus and adjust travel plans accordingly as the situation develops.

If an employee expresses concern about traveling to a destination in Asia other than China, employers should consider the employee’s concerns carefully and, depending on the circumstances, may elect to accommodate him or her by adjusting plans and/or delaying trips if it is possible to do so without undue burden to the business. Employers should be particularly sensitive to the concerns of employees who may be most vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus, including older employees and pregnant employees. A generalized fear of all travel is not reasonable, however, and employers are not currently required to accommodate a generalized desire not to travel.

Employees Returning From China and Other Destinations

Employees returning to the United States who have been in Wuhan within the last 14 days are likely to be diverted to airports equipped to conduct health screenings, and potentially subject to mandatory quarantine. If an employee has been in Wuhan within the last 14 days, employers should tell the employee to stay away from the workplace through the disease’s incubation period, currently believed to be at least 14 days. Employers may consider allowing affected employees to work from home or take a leave of absence.  

Employers should not automatically exclude employees from the workplace merely because they have returned from Asia, however. The Centers for Disease Control has advised that persons who have been abroad but have not been to Wuhan and have no symptoms “can continue with [their] daily activities, such as going to work, school, or other public areas.”

Employees who are sick

If an employee has returned from China within the past 14 days and exhibits symptoms of the coronavirus, the employee should not return to the workplace until symptoms disappear or until a health care provider certifies that the employee is not contagious. Depending on the facts and circumstances of an individual case (such as exposure to an infected person coupled with some symptoms of the virus), employers may wish to consider directing certain employees who have not been to China to work from home or at a remote site for 14 days.

If an employee has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, he or she may be eligible for sick leave or a leave of absence pursuant to a variety of laws or company policies. If an employee has been present in the workplace since contracting the virus, the employer should assign qualified personnel to clean and disinfect the employee’s work area.

In light of employee privacy rights, employers generally should not disclose the identity of employees who contract the virus and should not force employees to undergo physical examinations or medical tests without conferring with counsel.

The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidance on preventing the spread of the virus, so employers should familiarize themselves with the guidance, which can be found at the CDC webpage for the coronavirus- www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.

If you have any questions about the issues arising from the spread of the coronavirus, or any other issue relating to employment law, please contact one of our attorneys:

Daniel F. Pyne III
Ernest M. Malaspina
Richard M. Noack
Jennifer Coleman
Eric Bellafronto
Karin M. Cogbill
Shirley Jackson
Sean Bothamley