While most of the country has been under stay-at-home orders for the better part of two months, essential workers have continued to show up for work every day to keep our communities running. As many states begin easing lockdown restrictions and organizations start considering a full return to work, many more employees will soon find themselves back in the workplace.
But with over 1.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone at the time of writing, it’s not just behemoths like Amazon and Walmart that have had to (or soon will) deal with coronavirus in the workplace.
If your organization hasn’t yet had a confirmed case of COVID-19 in your workforce, chances are that you likely will at some point. So, do you know what to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?
Preparing for Coronavirus in the Workplace
Before an employee ever tests positive, it’s important to be proactive and take steps that can help you prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. New actions and policies to consider may include wearing face masks, abiding by social distancing practices, installing touchless doors and hand sanitizer stations, and developing modified restroom and space plans. Employers can conduct daily health screenings by sending a short survey to employees before each shift asking if they have had any known exposure to coronavirus or are experiencing any symptoms. Any employee with a suspected case of coronavirus should be told to stay home. And of course, any employee that appears to be sick upon arrival should be sent home immediately.
It’s also important to keep up to date with applicable state and federal laws, as well as the latest CDC guidelines. To this end, an emergency communication system with local threat monitoring capabilities can help you more easily monitor the pandemic in the areas where employees live and work by tracking reported cases, shelter-in-place regulations, and current government guidelines. Developing pre-built COVID-19 notification templates in your emergency notification system in advance of a confirmed case can also help you save valuable time—quickly and concisely communicating critical information to employees diagnosed with or potentially exposed to the virus.
6 Steps to Take When an Employee Tests Positive for COVID-19
Having an employee who tests positive for COVID-19 is a complex, sensitive situation. It’s important that the employee’s supervisor and HR work together to quickly mitigate the impact of the diagnosis on the employee, his or her family, and the rest of the organization.
Below are six steps you should take when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. It’s vital to complete these actions as quickly as possible given the rapid spread of novel coronavirus. Even a short delay could cause additional employees (and their family members) to become needlessly exposed to the virus.
1. Demonstrate empathy and compassion.
It’s a scary thing to be diagnosed with COVID-19. This is new territory for all of us and the intense news coverage isn’t exactly comforting. As a manager, business leader, or HR professional, responding to an employee that has just been diagnosed with COVID-19 requires a high degree of sensitivity. Your employee is likely feeling fearful and anxious, so before you start talking PTO and FMLA, it’s important to take a moment and just be there for them. Ask them how they have been coping and how their families are doing. Find out how you can best support them through this turbulent and stressful time.
2. Share sick leave policy information.
Once diagnosed, the most important thing any employee can do is stay home and self-isolate. According to the CDC, any employee testing positive should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met. Depending on the severity of symptoms and nature of the business, some employees may be able to continue working remotely while quarantined, while others may need to utilize sick leave. For many, however, the idea of taking unexpected time off of work—possibly unpaid—can be a major source of stress. Help the employee understand the company’s coronavirus-specific paid time off policy. Effective April 1, for example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires that employers with less than 500 employees provide employees with two weeks of paid leave—which is eligible for reimbursement through tax credits—at the employee’s regular rate of pay.
3. Identify risks specific to the employee’s activities and circumstances.
As soon as an employee tells you they have tested positive for COVID-19, it’s time to start your own internal contact tracing. Ask the employee which coworkers they’ve been in close contact with (meaning 6 feet or less) over the last 14 days, as well as what areas of the workplace they have been in besides their personal workspace. This may include company vehicles as well as common spaces such as breakrooms, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and elevators. If the employee is so sick that you can’t get timely feedback from them on this, ask his or her manager about the employee’s routine, schedule, and recent activities. And don’t stop at just inquiring about contact with other employees. Anybody your employee has had contact with in a work setting—including customers, partners, and service providers—should also be considered.
4. Notify all contacts who were possibly exposed at work.
To meet its duty of care, an employer has an obligation to inform fellow employees of possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. An organization should also notify any customers, vendors, and suppliers that may have been exposed. Confidentiality is key, however, and employers can not disclose or imply the identity of the infected employee. Doing so may violate a number of federal and state laws, such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (CMIA)—and put your organization at risk for a costly breach.
Time is of the essence here, and a mass notification system with multi-channel, two-way communication capabilities can play an invaluable role. Let’s say you have field-based or frontline workers that may only check their email occasionally. They may be more likely to receive a text message well before an email informing them that they may have been exposed to the virus and should head home immediately. And in just those few extra hours, they could have easily and unknowingly exposed others to the virus. This is why—after a confirmed case of COVID-19 in its Georgia office—one AlertMedia customer used their emergency communication system to ask employees that had been potentially exposed to the virus to self-quarantine.
Using audience communication features like surveys and read receipts also allow you to gather employee feedback and verify the delivery of urgent, time-sensitive messages. Surveys, for example, can help you confirm employees’ recent whereabouts in the event of a possible exposure. You can customize and automatically send responses for each possible survey answer, as well as download these response reports to share with those that will follow up with affected employees or use to fill shifts.
Like any employee communication about coronavirus in the workplace, sensitivity reigns supreme. The thought of being exposed to coronavirus—especially for those at-risk populations—can be anxiety provoking. While you can’t offer medical advice, you can share resources—such as CDC disinfecting and self-isolating guidelines, symptoms to watch for, and local testing options—to help guide and support them through the 14-day monitoring period.
5. Deep clean and disinfect all affected work areas.
The next step is to arrange for a deep cleaning and disinfection of the affected work areas by a provider that can clean according to the CDC’s disinfection guidelines. Depending on the size of your organization and the type of work it does, a temporary closure of the affected work areas for 72 hours or more—the amount of time the virus can live without a host—may also be prudent. Having those pre-built notification templates in your emergency communication system can be particularly helpful in communicating about any office closures and ensuring everyone is notified in a timely manner. This can reassure employees that it is safe to return to the office and that the employer has taken all the necessary steps to keep them safe while at work.
6. Communicate often and maintain transparency.
To create a culture that can weather the storm brought on by COVID-19, it all starts—and ends—with your people. Be sure to follow up regularly with diagnosed and exposed employees. Ask how you can support employees self-isolating at home. The two-way communication capabilities of an emergency communication system can help you easily conduct these wellness checks. Throughout the 14-day monitoring period, for example, you can send a survey to all exposed employees asking if they are experiencing any symptoms. With these survey responses, you can then quickly provide additional support to employees that may be infected, sharing with them critical information such as self-isolating guidelines and where the nearest testing facility is located.
As one example, PHI Air Medical—the leading air ambulance provider in the U.S—is using AlertMedia’s emergency communication system to stay in touch more effectively with employees that may have been exposed to coronavirus in their work environment. As PHI’s Emergency Operations Manager, Brad Olson says, “We utilize AlertMedia on a daily basis to reach out to our employees who have come in contact with a confirmed or potentially affected COVID-19 patient. We then send a notification to monitor each employee for 14 days after the transport to make sure they are not experiencing any adverse effects from the transport. If there is an issue that our management needs to know about, we can quickly notify them through AlertMedia.”
Your Approach Now Has a Long-Term Impact on the Business
While this is an unprecedented challenge every company is now facing and we’re all sort of flying blind to some extent, we do know this: we will get through this. Prioritizing employee health and well-being by focusing on frequent, transparent, and relevant employee communication has never been more important.
There will be a post-COVID future, and how you treat your people now will have a big impact on how employees feel about their job, your organization, and whether they really want to continue working for you once we find our “new normal.” In fact, companies that have exemplary safety, health, and environmental programs outperform the S&P 500 by between 3 and 5 percent, while 74 percent of employees say knowing their employer cares about their health makes them more likely to be satisfied, loyal, and motivated in the workplace.
To minimize the fear, anxiety, and disruption caused by a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace, it’s important to keep up to date on the latest guidelines and respond appropriately when an employee tells you they’ve tested positive for the virus. And through swift and effective communication, you can keep your people safe, boost morale, and position your organization as a caring and committed employer in the post-COVID landscape.