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Q&A: Safety a big concern as workers return to their jobs

Ronaldo Santos's temperature checked on May 12 before the start of his work shift in the meat department of a grocery store in Dallas. With more businesses across the country easing back to life, the new challenge will be how to keep workers safe during the pandemic. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Ronaldo Santos’s temperature checked on May 12 before the start of his work shift in the meat department of a grocery store in Dallas. With more businesses across the country easing back to life, the new challenge will be how to keep workers safe during the pandemic. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

By MAE ANDERSON
AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — With more businesses throughout the country easing back into life, the new challenge will be keeping workers safe during the pandemic.

From temperature checks, contact tracing, social distancing and staggered schedules, a variety of new precautions are being put in place. The stakes are high since without a vaccine or treatment, an outbreak of the new coronavirus could be devastating for companies and workers alike, whether it happens in a meatpacking plant or an office.

“Businesses face existential threats all the time. They are built to make decisions that will determine the life or death of the company,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Choices that affect the life or death of their employees now need to be made for the first time. The stakes have never been higher.”

Here are some questions and answers on what returning to work will look like:

How are companies monitoring employees?

Employer-led contact tracing is one method companies will use to reopen. Contact tracing lets you identify people who may have come into contact with someone who has the virus in an effort to suppress transmission.

Many companies are offering technology that purports to do contact tracing digitally with the use of mobile phones or other devices. Some apps rely on Bluetooth or other signals to track people. Others analyze ambient signals around a device to detect a “digital footprint,: then compare it to similar readings from other phones to learn if the devices have been in close proximity. PriceWaterhouseCoopers is testing a contract-tracing app that uses this method and plans to use it internally as well as offer it to clients.

A company’s human resource department can work backwards to notify people who have been in proximity with an infected employee. The data are usually stored anonymously. With some apps, data is sent to a remote server and others keep it on the phone.

Contact tracing can be done offline. Employees can simply report at the end of each work day whom they have been in contact with. Then if an employee tests positive the company can reach out to the people they were in contact with.

Social distancing can be difficult but some employers are getting around that by staggering employee hours and limiting the number of people in the workplace. Google, for example, plans to reopen some offices beginning in June, keeping capacity at 10% to 15%.

Is it legal?

Regulations vary from state to state. Generally, though, it’s legal to require employees to download tracing apps, and in some cases, it could be argued that it is required, since the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to give workers “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The American Disabilities Act prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances. The coronavirus is one exception because it has been deemed a “direct threat” under ADA guidelines by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, so employers have more leeway. That means they can test employees if it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Companies probably couldn’t require testing for an employee who is staying at home, but it becomes necessary when bringing people back to the office. Employers still have to comply with confidentiality rules laid out by the ADA, so the results of temperature checks and other medical inquiries should remain private. Health records should also be kept separate from employee personnel files.

What about privacy rights?

Because contract tracing involves collecting data about people, there are some privacy concerns. Health-care providers cannot disclose patient medical information to other entities because of HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which was enacted in 1996 and regulates what health care companies can do with health care data. However, employers and contact-tracing apps don’t fall under HIPPA, said Michele Gilman, a privacy lawyer and fellow at Data & Society.

“One of the concerns here is that this will open the door to employers gathering massive amounts of health data on employees,” she said. “A lot of people believe health data is protected by the HIPPA statute. That law does not apply to employers. Employers have free reign over collection of this data and what they do with it.”

PwC and other app makers say they won’t collect information on users. PwC, for example, says no name or personal information is associated with the data and the data goes away in 45 days. But without federal regulation, employers are left to police themselves.

Are there any guidelines for re-opening?

Companies must comply with each state’s guidelines for reopening, most of which include different requirements for screening, health checks and social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers a online guidance for businesses and employers on how to reopen, including recommendations to minimize risk to employees. It has also posted six one-page “decision tool” documents that use traffic signs and other graphics to tell organizations what they should consider before reopening.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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