It will surprise no one to learn that our employment attorneys have spent much of the last two weeks answering questions about the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace. Among other questions, employers want to know their rights and responsibilities when an employee demonstrates signs of respiratory distress at work. In a few circumstances, employees have complained about a co-worker who is sneezing or coughing at work and demanded that the employer take action to remove them from the workplace.
Employers should plan in advance as to how they will deal with these scenarios. If an employee appears ill (i.e., continuous sneezing, coughing, or profuse sweating), the employer can ask the employee about their condition and, if appropriate, instruct the employee to immediately leave work and seek medical attention. The CDC recommends that employers not require employees to obtain a doctor’s note excusing them from work in these circumstances, due to the potential to overwhelm medical services.
Of course, employees may be experiencing non-COVID-19 symptoms from things like seasonal allergies. Employers may want to provide all employees with information (available from the CDC website) about signs of COVID-19 infection, in part to help avoid unnecessary concerns. Employers can also take steps to immediately sanitize work areas where employees have exhibited signs of respiratory distress.
When asking employees about signs of illness, employers should avoid questions involving medical history. These questions may run afoul of ADA prohibitions, and in any case they are unnecessary to determine whether that employee poses a risk to others in the workplace. All employers should continue to review CDC and OSHA alerts with regard to best practices for responding to infectious disease issues.