The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is top of mind for HR professionals and employers nationwide. Keep up with the current number of cases in your state with our interactive map, updated daily, and read on to learn how COVID-19 is impacting workplaces across the nation and what you can do to keep your workers healthy and safe.
We will be updating the map, below, daily at 12 p.m. (Eastern time) for the foreseeable future. Check back frequently for new numbers, and visit your state’s department of health website for more information specific to your region.
Data source: Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center, which pulls data from WHO, CDC, ECDC, NHC, DXY, and local media reports
Employers and HR pros must keep legal and practical considerations in mind when looking to keep their workforce safe.
Preventing exposure. You may wonder whether you can keep employees away from work if they have been exposed to COVID-19. The answer is yes. You can keep employees off work either because of a public health quarantine or at your request. Also, you’re within your rights to send employees home who come to work with active symptoms.
Cleanliness. A policy on office cleaning and hand-washing can limit the spread of viruses. The type of program you need depends on your circumstance, including the industry you are in. Health care, child care, and food preparation all have different rules that might not be the same for other industries.
Absenteeism. If you ask an employee to stay home because of exposure to something that may become a pandemic, it doesn’t seem fair to count the incident as absenteeism. The employee is being asked to stay home by you, the employer, or by a mandatory requirement from public health authorities. It would be difficult to justify a termination based on absenteeism in that circumstance.
Check your policies to make sure you inform employees that they must tell you of exposure to any highly communicable disease. Have policies in place indicating you may send employees home who are exhibiting symptoms, including fevers over 100 degrees, active diarrhea, or vomiting, or who have been traveling in virus hot spots.
Also, remember that scientific understanding of the virus is increasing, and protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may change. Continue to consult with your attorney on procedures related to traveling employees or those who may be subject to quarantine as the CDC continues to assess the risk.
COBRA. Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) administration depends on notices being sent within specified time periods measured around the occurrence of a qualifying event.
In general, an employer has 30 days to notify a plan administrator of a qualifying event that is a termination of, or a reduction of hours in, employment or an employee’s death. Qualified beneficiaries have 60 days to notify a plan administrator of other qualifying events, such as a divorce or legal separation or a dependent child ceasing to be a dependent child under the plan terms.
In cases of past severe disasters, such as hurricane activity, the Departments of Labor and the Treasury have issued guidance requiring flexibility in applying COBRA timing requirements. The agencies issued informal guidance stating that regarding deadlines for making COBRA elections:
“The guiding principle for plans must be to act reasonably, prudently and in the interest of the workers and their families who rely on their health plans for their physical and economic well-being [and] plan fiduciaries should make reasonable accommodations … to minimize the possibility of individuals losing benefits because of the failure to comply with pre-established timeframes.”
In these emergency situations, plan administrators need to think through the issues and come up with some administrative fixes. Here are some key steps plan administrators could consider as they attempt to address the issues raised by the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
FLSA/wage and hour. Wage and hour issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) can be tricky:
- Business travel: If a nonexempt employee is on a business trip and is quarantined, the overnight travel rules will apply, with the employer being responsible for providing payment for wages that cut across the workday and for all time the person is, in fact, working. For exempt employees, if the absence is occasioned by the employer, the company is liable for the individuals’ ongoing wages and may not deduct from actual salary. Paid time off (PTO) can be deducted but only until it’s exhausted.
- Personal travel: If employees are on a personal trip and quarantined, they aren’t typically entitled to wages, no matter if they’re exempt or nonexempt. Note the rules for partial-day absences for exempt employees still apply.
Healthcare benefits. High-deductible health plans (HDHPs) may cover COVID-19 testing and treatment without jeopardizing participants’ eligibility for a health savings account (HSA), according to March 11 guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
An otherwise HSA-compatible HDHP will not lose that status “merely because the health plan provides health benefits associated with testing for and treatment of COVID-19 without a deductible, or with a deductible below the minimum deductible (self only or family) for an HDHP,” the IRS stated in Notice 2020-15. “Therefore, an individual covered by the HDHP will not be disqualified from being an eligible individual” who may contribute to an HSA.
“Due to the nature of this public health emergency, and to avoid administrative delays or financial disincentives that might otherwise impede testing for and treatment of COVID-19 for participants in HDHPs,” the IRS applied this safe harbor to “all medical care services received and items purchased associated with testing for and treatment of COVID-19.”
The guidance does not actually require health plans to cover any specific service. “Individuals participating in HDHPs or any other type of health plan should consult their particular health plan regarding the health benefits for testing and treatment of COVID-19 provided by the plan, including the potential application of any deductible or cost sharing,” the IRS stated.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). “Federal privacy laws, such as HIPAA, can create complexities for many plan sponsors as they attempt to weigh the privacy rights of an employee or dependent who has contracted COVID-19 against preserving public safety, including that of the employee’s or dependent’s co-workers, family, and friends,” according to a blog post from Morgan Lewis attorneys Saghi Fattahian and Michelle McCarthy.
A recent bulletin from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) clarified the application of HIPAA’s privacy rules, including its exception for public health-related disclosures, in the COVID-19 context.
“The protections of the Privacy Rule are not set aside during an emergency,” but the rule still allows protected health information (PHI) to be used and disclosed “when necessary to treat a patient, to protect the nation’s public health, and for other critical purposes,” HHS’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) explained.
The OCR issued the bulletin “to ensure that HIPAA covered entities and their business associates are aware of the ways that patient information may be shared under the HIPAA Privacy Rule in an outbreak of infectious disease or other emergency situation.” The agency has periodically issued this type of guidance in response to crises such as natural disasters, mass shootings, and the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“The most important thing to remember is that basic requirements of HIPAA still apply even in a public health emergency,” according to Mintz Levin attorney Kristen Marotta. HIPAA allows covered entities to use and disclose PHI without a patient’s authorization for treatment, payment, and healthcare operations. However, the existence of a public health emergency “does not mean that covered entities can freely disclose PHI for other purposes,” she noted. “Disclosure of PHI to the media or others not involved in the patient’s care is generally not permissible.”
Paid sick leave. Employees across the country who may be worried about not collecting a paycheck while their employers are shut down due to COVID-19 can breathe a little easier. On March 18, 2020, President Donald Trump signed a new bill into law that will allow employers to provide paid sick leave to employees impacted by the outbreak.
The legislation will affect employers with fewer than 500 employees. Larger employers will be excluded, and employers with fewer than 50 employees will be able to apply for an exemption if complying with the requirements will jeopardize the viability of the business as an ongoing concern, according to a summary of the legislation provided by Ryan J. Funk and Susan W. Kline, attorneys with Faegre Drinker in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The legislation will provide employees of covered employers with up to 80 hours of paid sick leave, available for immediate use regardless of how long the employees have worked for the employer, according to the summary from Funk and Kline. Part-timers will be paid on a prorated basis.
The law will become effective within 15 days of enactment. The benefits provided in the legislation will expire December 31, 2020. The new law is separate and above any existing sick leave entitlements. The new law requires covered employers to provide all employees who are affected by COVID-19 with up to 80 hours of paid sick time under specific circumstances.
Outside of those circumstances, an employee is subject to existing sick leave entitlements. The new law will temporarily trump any and all state or municipal laws, and then regular state sick leave laws will kick in after that.
OSH Act. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s (OSH Act) General Duty Clause. In some circumstances, such as with healthcare workers, exposure to illnesses is an inherent job risk, but the employer still has an obligation to minimize the danger.
If part of an employee’s job is travel and there is an existing pandemic, an employer could face issues when sending employees into viral hot zones. A U.S. employer currently sending someone to China has a greater risk of being held responsible for exposure than an employer that chooses to delay the travel.
WARN Act. If your company has to lay off workers as a result of loss of business due to COVID-19, keep the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) in mind. This law requires certain employers to give advance notice of significant layoffs to employees and others. Layoff notice requirements are intended to protect employees, their families, and communities by giving employees a transition period in which they can adjust to losing their jobs, obtain other work, or pursue training for other work.
Although the basic idea behind the WARN Act is fairly straightforward, the law is filled with technical requirements that can trip up supervisors and HR specialists. In a nutshell, the WARN Act requires businesses that have at least 100 employees to give 60 days’ advance notice of any mass layoff or plant closing to affected employees, unions, and local and state governments. To determine how many employees an employer “has” under the WARN Act, it must count all employees at every location, not just the location where employees are being laid off.
Layoff notice is required when an employer experiences a “plant closing” or “mass layoff ” in which at least 50 employees lose their jobs during a 30-day period. Although part-time employees are not counted in determining whether a reduction in force affects enough employees to trigger the WARN Act, they are entitled to WARN Act notice if they’re being laid off.
There are so-called “mini-WARN” acts in the following jurisdictions: California; Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; Georgia; Hawaii; Illinois; Iowa; Maine; New Hampshire; New Jersey; New York; Tennessee; Vermont; and Wisconsin. The city of Philadelphia also has its own WARN Act.
Some states—Georgia, Maryland, North Dakota, and Ohio—require notice to state agencies but not to employees, and Michigan and Minnesota encourage, but don’t require, notice to employees before closings or mass layoffs.
However, in light of COVID-19, California is putting the WARN Act on hold. On March 17, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an Executive Order implementing important temporary modifications to Cal-WARN to assist employers in the current crisis. If your state has a mini-WARN Act of its own, you’d be wise to follow your governor’s next steps.
Unemployment benefits. Most states have a 7-day/1-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, but many have waived, or are considering waiving, this requirement to address COVID-19-related temporary furloughs.
In California, for example, Newsom recently waived the 1-week waiting period so unemployed workers may collect benefits for the first week they are out of work, and the California Employment Development Department has indicated that reduced hours because of COVID-19 will qualify for partial wage replacement benefits, too.
Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island also recently waived their waiting periods for COVID-19-related unemployment. Wisconsin’s and Massachusetts’ governors have asked their state legislatures for a waiver that is expected to be granted soon.
Because the current situation is very fluid, it is likely that many, if not all, states will follow suit regarding COVID-19 coverage, and employers will have to keep checking state requirements. Every state has an unemployment compensation agency that should be able to provide you with information on how the state is addressing COVID-19-related furloughs, layoffs, and shutdowns.
Whistleblowing. What if you have employees who refuse to come to work because they are afraid of exposure? It depends on the nature of the potential risk and exposure. There have been instances during severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), or more recently with measles outbreaks, when employees have refused to travel even though their mobility was essential to the job.
An employee’s complaint about workplace safety could kick in the OSH Act’s whistleblower protection requirements. However, if the fear is more generalized, simply based on worries relating to media coverage or more general pandemic questions, your concerns may not be objective. If you can show there is no substantial risk and you’ve taken steps to mitigate and respond to the danger, whistleblower protection is less likely.
Workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation is another area to consider, says Jo Ellen Whitney, an attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa. In general, getting sick with something like the flu while on business travel isn’t covered by workers’ comp because that could happen anywhere, not just on business travel.
“That is true even in health care if you work as a floor nurse and get sick, but I have not seen any cases on how this same issue would be addressed in the event of an employee being sent into a target zone when caring for the ill is not his or her job,” she says. “Most people try to stay ahead of that issue by pulling their people out.”