By Tracey I. Levy, Esq. and Alexandra Lapes, Esq.
As the global Coronavirus situation is expanding rapidly and hitting close to home, Westchester County and New York City employers should review their communicable disease plans and implement preventative measures to limit the potential effect of illness in the workplace.
Key strategies for employers in preparing and responding to a Coronavirus outbreak are:
- Implement a communicable disease policy
If your organization has not done so already, HR professionals should devise a communicable disease policy and prevention plan in case the outbreak directly impacts their workplace. An effective policy should identify and communicate the organization’s objectives and address workplace safety precautions, such as employee travel restrictions, mandatory reporting of exposure, reporting to public health authorities, employees quarantined or in isolation, and facility shutdowns.
Employers should also establish policies to encourage employees who feel sick to stay home, post reminders on proper handwashing and coughing/sneezing practices and make hand sanitizers and tissues available throughout the workplace. Remind employees of relevant policies that may provide them with paid time off in these circumstances, including time off under Westchester County’s Earned Sick Leave Law and New York City’s Earned Sick and Safe Time Act, as discussed below.
- Make sure not to discriminate
Because of the heightened risk that COVID19 presents for individuals with underlying medical conditions, in the course of implementing a communicable disease policy or administering a response to the current Coronavirus threat employers may learn, inadvertently or otherwise, of latent disabling conditions impacting some of their employees. Employers should treat all such information as confidential, and take care not to engage in any actions that could be perceived as discriminating based on a disability.
Employers also should avoid, and take measures to prevent, any harassment or discriminatory actions that target individuals who may be associated with an ethnic or religious group, or who have relatives from a particular country, that has been more substantially impacted by the spread of the virus. Employment policies should be consistent with public health recommendations, as well as local, state, and federal workplace laws.
- Consider alternative work arrangements
Encourage sick employees to stay home and focus on their health, and recovering employees or those who have been asked to self-quarantine to do so. Consider flexible work schedules to limit the number of workers in the same work area or worksite, reduce exposure during commutes on mass transit at peak times, and reduce face-face contact. Use virtual work environments to replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences. Leverage remote access solutions where logistically possible to enable healthy employees to stay productive in the event the workplace or specific individuals are subject to a quarantine.
- Advise employees before traveling
Employers should continuously check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which an employee may need to travel. Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms before travelling and notify their supervisor if they need to stay home. If an employee becomes sick while travelling or on temporary assignment, ensure the employee understands to notify a supervisor and promptly call a local health care provider. New Yorkers can call the State hotline at 1-888-364-3065, and for Westchester County COVID-19 information call 211.
- Manage employee benefits and compensation
Non-exempt employees must be paid overtime compensation if they work in excess of 40 hours in a workweek while covering for other employees absent due to the Coronavirus. Time spent working from home or through other remote work arrangements also is compensable.
Most employees in Westchester County and New York City will be eligible for up to five days of paid sick leave, under local paid sick leave laws, if they personally contract the Coronavirus, their workplace is closed due to a public health emergency, they are caring for a family member who has contracted the virus, or they are caring for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed due to a public health emergency.
Employers should consider whether, independent of any available paid leave time, they want to continue to pay employees for all or some portion of the time that they are unable to or are precluded from working because of the Coronavirus. While some organizations have suggested leave donation plans as a means of encouraging sick employees to stay home if they have exhausted their paid time-off benefits, such programs need to be carefully considered. If not appropriately structured, the donated time can have tax consequences for the donor and the recipient. Further, the benefits of such a program for small and mid-size employers may prove to be few or fleeting in the context of a pandemic, as donated time may benefit the first to fall ill, but then leave little in the bank for the donors and others who later contract the disease.
New York State Paid Family Leave is available for employees who may need to care for a close family member with a serious health condition. However, the state defines a “serious health condition” as an “illness, injury, impairment, physical or mental condition requiring inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or inpatient/outpatient residential health facility;” or “continuing treatment or supervision by a health care provider.” Under this definition, care of a family member who is hospitalized due to Coronavirus or who has complications from the virus due to an underlying medical condition, such as asthma or respiratory disease, likely would be covered. Care of a family member who experiences milder Coronavirus symptoms, more akin to the flu, likely would not be covered.
- Stay informed on changes to state and local law
Local paid sick leave laws in Westchester County and New York City present some additional challenges for employers. The laws permit employers to require employees to provide documentation from a health care provider after three consecutive sick days, but employers may not require the health care provider to specify the medical reason for sick leave. Employers need to balance this provision against the need to be informed, for public safety reasons, if an employee has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus or is being quarantined so as to take appropriate precautions to prevent the further spread of the virus throughout the workplace. Also, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises employers not to require medical certification at this time to validate employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness, as they anticipate healthcare providers and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation.
Notably, while it has been widely reported that New York State Governor Cuomo plans to amend New York State’s paid sick leave bill to deal with the Coronavirus, there currently is no state-wide paid sick leave law in New York. Paid sick leave at the state level is simply proposed legislation that needs to make its way through the legislative process and, even if enacted, as proposed the law would not take effect until April 2021.
- Employee morale and business continuity
Lastly, employers should endeavor to communicate information to employees about their organization’s communicable disease plan, efforts to reduce the risks of contagion in their workplace, and policies and benefits for those who are directly impacted by the Coronavirus.