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Though it has been months since the initial cases of people being infected with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) surfaced, many employers in the United States still find themselves unprepared to respond to a local outbreak of the coronavirus. While Illinois and Chicago health officials seem sure that there is no indication of an Illinois outbreak any time soon, employers would be wise to begin preparing a response to an outbreak now rather than waiting until after one occurs. Any outbreak response plan must ensure compliance with the requirements of federal, state, and local employment and sick leave laws and ordinances, including special duties that may be triggered only during public health emergencies.

Can employers ask employees suspected of having or being exposed to the coronavirus to stay home?

Employers are under a general obligation to protect their employees from known hazards. In certain circumstances, this may include the coronavirus. However, employers must take care to establish policies that are nondiscriminatory and are not applied selectively or arbitrarily. Employers should not act on mere suspicion when asking an employee to stay home but should be able to articulate an objective basis for the suspicion (and document it) before asking an employee to stay home.

As the CDC and WHO have often reiterated, the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to quarantine infected individuals to prevent the spread of the virus and contact with the uninfected. In the workplace, this means employers should actively encourage sick employees to stay home as soon as they suspect being exposed to the virus, even before they begin displaying symptoms. Employers would be wise to also remind sick employees of any rights that they may have to paid time off when sick or caring for sick family members. If an employee is displaying symptoms of an acute respiratory illness such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath, employers can ask the employee not to return to work until he or she has been without a fever for no less than 24 hours.

Employers should also consider halting non-essential work-related travel, particularly to countries known to be coronavirus hotspots such as China, Italy, Japan, or South Korea. If an employee has recently returned from such a country, an employer should consider asking the employee to self-quarantine and work from home for up to 14 days, which is the virus’s estimated incubation and transmission period. Continue reading ›

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