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OP-ED: An employee tested positive for COVID-19? Take these steps next

In the midst of the global pandemic, nothing is certain … except endless Zoom calls, taxes and having anxiety over what to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

That last possibility is likely on the minds of many business owners while the numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to increase throughout the country. It’s my hope that this seven-step guide will provide employers with some stress relief in the event that a worker tests positive. Here’s what you should do if you find yourself in that unfortunate position:

Isolate and quarantine the infected employee

Tell the infected employee to remain at home until told otherwise by a physician or public health official. If a doctor’s note releasing the employee can’t be had, follow CDC guidelines on when infected employees may cease isolating themselves. The guidelines contain specific requirements that may or not apply depending on whether an employee tests positive for COVID-19 and exhibits the disease’s symptoms.

Conduct contact tracing to identify individuals in “6-15-48” zone

After learning that one employee (or more) has been diagnosed with COVID-19, act quickly to have the person or persons identify all other employees and third parties they might have been near during the infectious period. Ask infected employees to identify everyone who falls into the so-called 6-15-48 zone: those who worked with them in “close proximity” (within six feet) for a prolonged period of time (15 minutes or more) during the 48-hour period before the onset of symptoms.

Talk to employees who were in close proximity to an infected employee

According to CDC guidance, you should tell all noncritical infrastructure workers who were in close proximity to an infected employee that they may have been exposed and, to prevent the infection from spreading, that they should go home for 14 days. While these employees are being quarantined, they should be told to continue monitoring themselves for symptoms, avoiding contact with vulnerable people and planning to seek medical attention if symptoms develop. As noted below, these employees may be entitled to leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The CDC has developed alternative guidelines for critical infrastructure workers. An essential business’ asymptomatic employees who have been directly exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 can continue to work if these guidelines are followed.

Record, report and investigate if a case of COVID-19 is related to work

OSHA recently released new requirements to help employers decide if they need to record and report confirmed coronavirus cases in the workplace. To ensure you are in compliance, you should be documenting your attempts to learn if a positive COVID-19 case was related to work. In most situations, after learning of an employee’s COVID-19 illness, you should:

  1. ask infected employees how they believe their illness was contracted;
  2. while respecting privacy, talk to infected employees about any work or out-of-work activities that may have resulted in the contraction of the illness; and
  3. review employees’ work setting for situations that increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

OSHA’s guidance notes that COVID-19 cases that are related to work often come with certain tell-tale signs. In the main, cases are considered work-related when:

  1. several cases develop among workers who work closely together;
  2. the disease is contracted after lengthy, close exposure to a customer or fellow worker who has a confirmed case of COVID-19; or
  3. an employee’s job duties include having frequent, close exposure to the general public in a place where the disease is known to have spread widely.

OSHA says there’s no need to record a particular case of COVID-19 at times when a reasonable and good-faith inquiry has been conducted and produced no evidence establishing that it’s more likely than not that exposure occurred in the workplace.

Clean and disinfect the workplace

In the wake of a confirmed COVID-19 case, follow the CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting your workplace. Your cleaning staff or a third-party sanitation contractor should clean and disinfect all places (e.g., offices, bathrooms and common areas) used by an ill person, placing a priority on frequently touched surfaces.

Find out if other employees and third parties should be notified

Following the confirmation of a COVID-19 case, you make sure everyone who works in the same place as the infected employee knows exactly what has happened. The necessary sort of notification can be done without revealing any confidential information such as the name of an employee.

Employees and third parties should also be told of any actions taken in response to the discovery that an employee has an infection. These actions can include requiring employees who work near an infected worker to go home (if they are at a nonessential business), and sanitizing and cleaning workplaces. Remind employees who exhibit symptoms to seek medical attention. Employers who fail to tell employees of confirmed COVID-19 cases may be in violation of OSHA’s general-duty clause, which requires all employers to provide employees with a safe work environment.

Decide if infected employees should receive paid time off

Finally, decide if infected employees are entitled by company policy or local, state or federal guidelines to paid time off. If an employer is covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, infected employees may be eligible for emergency paid sick leave. Other potentially exposed employees may be eligible for emergency paid sick leave or other leave as provided in a company handbook.

Stephen Scott is an associate in the Portland office of Fisher Phillips, a national firm dedicated to representing employers’ interests in all aspects of workplace law. Contact him at 503-205-8094 or smscott@fisherphillips.com.

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