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Are Employers Liable if Their Employees Contract COVID-19?

COVID-19

Can your clients be held liable if an employee of theirs becomes ill with COVID-19? Many companies have implemented operational changes in efforts to combat this virus. For instance, mandating remote work and limiting services and business hours.

As companies face an uncertain financial future, they also face the possibility that their workers will contract the coronavirus and hold them accountable for not putting adequate precautions in place. The virus is truly unprecedented so it is difficult to give any hard and fast rules.

Safety First

It is important to put the safety and health of people first and work backward from there. Employers are required to provide employees a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that may cause death or serious physical harm.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not released specific standards covering COVID-19, however employers could face risks under this clause if they don’t take measures to protect their workplace and ensure it is not exposed to individuals who may have contracted the virus. It is strongly encouraged that employees work from home when possible, avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10, and restrict or eliminate any work-related travel.

In certain healthcare settings and other work environments where employees could encounter blood-borne pathogens, federal workplace safety law further requires the employer to provide an immediate confidential medical evaluation and follow-up for employees that have had an exposure incident.

Communication

Employers should communicate best practices to employees and reiterate existing workplace rules as well as clarify any temporary rules related to health and safety that could relate to this pandemic.

It is critical that employers are able to manage general liability risks by following guidance from both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as local counties and states.

If companies must have employees continue to come into work, they should require additional medical information from employees and mandate that they stay home if they have any symptoms. Employers can use additional screening tools, including inquiring about travel to areas significantly impacted by the coronavirus, to identify employees who may be asymptomatic.

Employers must do their best to identify employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus and notify the rest of the workforce about when and where that employee was working and who else may have been exposed. The employee should remain anonymous and information about their illness should be kept in a private file.

Your clients can consider permitting employees who are sick to use paid time off and other leave policies encouraging them to stay home, as taking these measures can assist in avoiding legal claims.

Whether a company can be held liable if one of its employees infects others may depend on whether that employee can prove the virus was contracted at work.

More discrimination, retaliation or whistleblower claims are believed to arise from this pandemic and companies may face wage and hour lawsuits if they are not paying employees correctly while they work remotely; or violate mass layoffs protocols.

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