With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise and an anticipated spike in cases after the Thanksgiving holiday, employers need to be mindful of any disruptions positive Covid cases could mean to their business operations.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises most employers to send employees home when they have had a risk of COVID-19 exposure under the agency’s “close contact” definition.
In order to ensure you are in compliance with the latest CDC guidelines, it is recommended that businesses follow these key contact-tracing steps.
1. Update policies and procedures.
The CDC had previously defined a “close contact” as someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of a confirmed coronavirus case. The updated guidance, which health departments rely on to conduct contact tracing, now defines a close contact as someone who was within six feet of an infected individual for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.
Policies should apply to all employees regardless of their title, and all employees should be trained on the new definition of “close contact”.
2. Identify exposed employees.
Based on the new contact-tracing rules provided by the CDC, employers should identify employees who worked within six feet of an infected co-worker for a cumulative total of 15 minutes during any 24-hour period in the 48 hours prior to when the sick individual showed symptoms. Or, if someone is asymptomatic, the evaluation should include the 48 hours before the COVID-19 test was administered.
3. Conduct a phone interview with infected worker.
Speak with the employee who tested positive and ask questions which will help identify all employees this person interacted with, including the amount of times they interacted and the length of time of each of the interactions.
By law, employers are required to keep an employee’s health condition confidential. However, the new cumulative 15-minute rule from the CDC makes it important for employers to consider asking the infected employee to waive confidentiality.
The waiving of confidentiality by the infected employee allows the business to have more detailed conversations with the potential close contacts identified by the infected employee.
Any waiver of rights should be reviewed by legal counsel.
If a confidential waiver is not obtained, the business should still interview the infected worker, but needs to be careful as to not divulge the name of the infected employee when speaking with others.
4. Structure work to limit and trace contacts.
A cumulative 15 minutes can be easily reached over a 24-hour period, so businesses will need to review the possibility of changing their onsite operations. Also, continue to educate employees on the importance of social distancing and mask wearing.
If some or all employees cannot work remotely, employers should discourage face-to-face meetings whenever possible. The use of emails, videoconferencing and phone calls should be encouraged, even when in the office.
For those employees who must be in close proximity to other workers in order to do their jobs, it is recommended that businesses have employees keep a log of all their interactions with other employees throughout the day. For those employees who have indicated extended exposure to certain employees at a distance of less than six feet, it would be sufficient for that employee to note at the end of the workday the employees that he or she spent more than 15 minutes of cumulative time with.
5. Ensure your workplace is safe.
Businesses should continue to make the workplace safe by following CDC guidelines, which includes regularly cleaning and disinfecting, social distancing whenever possible and wearing masks. Additionally, businesses should look to installing air filters throughout their facilities and increasing the number of HVAC system air exchanges.
Also, companies should consider staggered start times to shifts and lunch breaks and making other schedule changes that will decrease the number of employees in the facility at any given time.
6. Ensure transparency when dealing with employees.
Put together a pandemic response plan and ensure you enforce it.
Having policies in place that show you are attempting to be in compliance with CDC guidelines are worthless if you don’t practice them. How effective is your company’s mask mandate if you have employees constantly flouting the rules? You require employees to wipe down office equipment like printers and scanners after use, but what if employees were in a hurry and did not do what was requested or forgot?
Employees can walk out and complain to the Department of Labor, stating your company is not providing a safe workplace. Do you want to deal with that and the possible repercussions?
Training is so important when implementing a pandemic response plan. Set aside time to put your employees through a training session in which you explain your COVID-19 policies. Have employees sign an acknowledgment that they have been through the training and understand what is expected of them.
Let’s not fool ourselves. We will all be dealing with this pandemic for at least the next eight months. Take the time now to prepare and mitigate risk to your business.
Marzano Human Resources Consulting is there for you to assist in the development of policies which will mitigate risk to your organization. Don’t worry about the potential for litigation. We will work with your business to identify issues which need legal assistance and direct you as needed. We partner with very capable employment law attorneys.