As more and more employees are returning to work, it is no surprise that employers are dealing with an influx of new issues. Guidance from the CDC and other agencies seems to change regularly, and employers may struggle to keep their policies up-to-date with the changes.
Since the start of the pandemic, the CDC has provided recommendations for individuals who were infected with the coronavirus to self-quarantine for a period of time. Employers have used these recommendations to determine when an infected worker is safe to return to work. In late July, the CDC changed its guidance relating to ending self-quarantine based on a recent study summarized here. Previously, the CDC recommended that employees not return to work until at least 72 hours had passed since the employee’s last fever in addition to the employee experiencing a reduction in respiratory symptoms. However, the CDC now recommends that employees can return to work after “at least 24 hours” have passed since the last fever—without the use of fever-reducing medications—and the employee has experienced an “improvement in symptoms,” recognizing that some individuals experience symptoms other than respiratory symptoms. For individuals who tested positive but never developed symptoms, the recommendation is that isolation and other precautions can be discontinued, and employees can return to work, 10 days after the date of the first positive COVID-19 test.
Therefore, the CDC recommendation for most employees who do not suffer from a severe case, is that they can report to work 10 days after the first positive test, 24 hours after last having a fever and after they have experienced an improvement in symptoms. The CDC does not currently recommend using a negative COVID-19 test as a criteria for returning to work, except to the extent that two negative tests taken at least 24 hours apart could be used to shorten the isolation period. However, given current delays that many are experiencing with getting tested and receiving test results, a negative test may not often be a practical solution for employers. Employers should always check state and local requirements as to return to work requirements and guidelines as local governments may require more stringent measures. For instance, Virginia just released in depth guidelines for workplace safety that currently differ from CDC guidance.
Practical Reminders for the Employer from the CDC
Employers can and should require that employees report if they tested positive for COVID-19. If an employer learns that an employee who had worked in the office is confirmed to have tested positive, what to do depends on how much time has lapsed. If it has been less than seven days since the sick employee used the facility, the CDC recommends that employers close off areas used for prolonged periods of time by the infected employee in order to clean and disinfect the area. Additionally, employers should wait 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting to minimize potential for other employees being exposed to respiratory droplets. If waiting 24 hours is not feasible, wait as long as possible. Following this waiting period, the area should be cleaned in compliance with CDC guidelines. The CDC does not require an employer to shut down a facility each time an employee tests positive if the above measures can be taken. However, if it has been seven days or more since the sick employee used the facility, CDC guidance provides that additional cleaning and disinfection is not necessary.
Employers should also contact trace with other employees to the greatest extent possible. Employers should inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19. However, employers must maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and any state privacy laws and not disclose the employee’s name. While it may be possible to infer the identity of the person infected, particularly in smaller workplaces, employers should continue to take appropriate steps to protect the confidentiality of the infected employee.
Depending on where an employer is located, it may need to comply with local reporting guidelines and work with local health department officials to determine which employees may have had close contact with the employee with COVID-19 and who may need to take additional precautions, including exclusion from work and remaining at home. In Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, employers are not required to report cases of COVID-19 to a local health agency. However, keep in mind that an employer may have an obligation to report the illness under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
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