Rule 4: No Touching – Return to Work in the Time of COVID-19

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Epstein Becker & Green

Part 4 of a series featuring our video Rules of the Road: Return to Work in the Time of COVID-19.

We have said this before, but we will say it again: in the workplace, there should be no touching – ever. The COVID-19 pandemic just provides another reason to follow the advice we give in the anti-harassment context, that employees should maintain distance and not touch others.

No Touching, Ever – Not Even For Handshakes

In almost a long forgotten time, pre-COVID-19, it was a natural tendency for employees to use handshakes, handshakes-plus, and hugs as a way to build rapport and relationships in the workplace. We have previously advised that only handshakes were appropriate workplace interactions. Now, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed these social and business norms moving forward, whereby, according to guidance from the CDC, employees should limit contact with others as much as possible. Additionally, the CDC recommends that employees should not touch their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Some individuals may be asymptomatic, but still be able to spread the virus, so it is important to avoid close contact with people who are at higher risk of getting sick. Even in California, for example, employees are encouraged to protect themselves at work by avoiding, where possible, direct physical contact, such as shaking hands, with others. Further, in New York, employers must reduce interpersonal contact and congregation, via methods such as shifting design, staggering arrivals and departures, and adjusting workplace hours.

COVID-19 has taught us that business can continue just fine without any touching whatsoever. Therefore, employees should embrace the wave (or the “wave” button on Zoom) or, at most, the elbow bump, but avoid any contact that does not allow both parties to maintain six feet of social distance.

Going Hands Free in the Workplace

Additionally, employees should avoid touching common surfaces and whenever possible, should utilize devices that allow employees to move throughout the workplace hands-free. Employees should be mindful of contact with shared equipment and common spaces. According to the CDC, current evidence suggests that COVID-19 may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Accordingly, CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting high touch surfaces, including countertops, handles, desks, sinks, and toilets. Employers may consider providing disposable gloves, touchless door opening and screen touch tools, or utilizing touchless devices to all employees to increase workplace hygiene and safety.

Going contactless is a requirement for Los Angeles employers, where employers must, to the extent possible, make doors and trashcans contactless, and regularly disinfect, using EPA approved disinfectants, frequently touched objects, such as tables, doorknobs, phones, keyboards, and elevators..

When it comes to touching in the workplace, everyone should keep their hands to themselves and away from their face. Although COVID-19 has brought substantial changes to our workplaces, the “no touching” rule has been, and should continue to be, a fundamental one for all employees, ensuring that everyone feels safe and comfortable in all interactions. Although COVID-19 has caused unprecedented challenges, it also has the potential to positively affect the workplace by creating a cleaner workspace and halting inappropriate touching or, more broadly, reducing harassment complaints.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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