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Have a sick employee? Send them home right now.

That cough or sneeze could be causing panic in your workplace.
By: | March 16, 2020 • 2 min read

Some employees are loyal. Maybe too loyal. Consider those who discount their illness and come to work sick because they need to meet a project deadline.

Since the coronavirus is thought to mainly spread between people who are in close contact with one another, the slightest sniffle, cough or sneeze from Bob or Susan could generate anxiety, even panic, among your workforce.

Related: Get your daily update on how HR is handling the coronavirus outbreak

Besides sending employees home at the first sign of illness, there are other best practices HR professionals can observe to minimize risk. Some employers are staggering or rotating staff between working from home and the office. The idea is to balance the greater good with individual needs.

“HR professionals are juggling several obligations,” says Wendy Lane, chair of the employment department at Greenberg Glusker law firm. “They have an obligation under OSHA to provide a safe working environment but also have an obligation [to support] anti-discrimination laws by giving a [sick] employee the opportunity to at least address the issue so they can make an informed decision.”

If HR professionals learn of an individual who appears ill—possibly through co-worker complaints—they can meet the person in a location where social distancing can be practiced. Then look for symptoms, she says. Is he feverish or sweating? Is she coughing or having trouble breathing? Does the employee describe his condition as simply allergies or a bad cold? HR can then determine the legitimacy of co-worker complaints or whether the illness appears serious enough to send the employee home. But if the employee is exhibiting key signs of the coronavirus—coughing, fever and shortness of breath—she says HR must ask the employee to leave work.

Lane points to CDC guidelines that can help employers conduct a risk assessment by asking pertinent questions, such as, “Have you been exposed to someone who has tested positive or returned from a high-risk area?”

However, some employees come to work sick because they lack benefits or depleted their vacation or sick-leave bank and can’t afford to shrink their paycheck. In such cases, research public disability payments in your state that can help supplement employee wages. Although public disability is generally not allowed for short-term illness, Lane says, California and perhaps other states have made exceptions related to the coronavirus.

She adds that paid sick leave in California can also be used for preventive care for employees or their family members, which includes self-quarantine. She says HR professionals need to be familiar with changing state laws regarding this pandemic.

“Hopefully, this is a temporary situation,” says Lane. “But right now, this is our new normal. We all need to err on the side of caution.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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