U.S. Workplaces May Not Be Ready For the Spread of Coronavirus

Liz Carey

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Since its discovery on December 20, the coronavirus has grown from a handful of patients in the Hubei province of China to nearly 30,000 people worldwide, including more than a dozen cases in the US.

And while it may not be as deadly as SARS or MERS, the virus does seem to spread more quickly. Only 560 people have died as a direct result of the virus, officials with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Feb. 5. But research indicates that for every one person who catches the virus, 2.5 to 3.5 people get sick as a result.

In order to prevent the spread of the disease, the CDC issued guidelines for workers; namely – “Stay home when you are sick.”

But in our “work through it” culture, where tens of millions of U.S. workers don’t have paid sick days, it’s highly unlikely workers will follow that advice, said Karen Scott, a former policy advisor for President Obama’s National Economic Council.

Scott said that because the U.S. is one of only two Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development countries without guaranteed paid sick leave, that one in three workers in the U.S. has paid sick time. The lack of sick time means workers work while sick, she said, something we’ve seen in the past.

“We saw this happen during the last outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009,” she wrote in an article for The Conversation. “One estimate found that at least 3 in 10 workers in the private sector did not take time off from work when sick with the virus, which led to up to seven million additional infections and may have extended the outbreak.”

According to a study by the National Partnership for Women and Families, going to work sick, or “presenteeism,” can end up costing employers more than $218 billion per year.

In California, it can also mean workers’ compensation claims.

Recently, Cal/OSHA released guidelines covering the coronavirus as an Aerosol Transmissible Disease, and requires employers to protect their employees from it. Employers must have an exposure control plan that also identifies coronavirus cases as quickly as possible and use whatever methods they can to limit its employees’ exposure to it.

“Work practice controls include procedures for safely moving patients through the operation or facility, hand washing, personal protective equipment donning and doffing procedures, the use of anterooms, and cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces, protective equipment, articles and linens,” the department said in its guidelines.

Laura Lawless, a partner with Squire Patton Boggs, said she recommends ensuring that employers postpone all non-essential travel to China and other countries, as per the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel” advisory to China.

“In keeping with your obligations under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to provide a safe workplace, postpone all non-essential business travel to the region, and evaluate the necessity of all international travel until the virus is controlled,” she said. “If an employee does report contracting the coronavirus while traveling for work, note that OSHA has deemed the 2019 novel coronavirus a recordable illness subject to reporting requirements.”

And the disease could be compensable under workers’ compensation, she said.

“Although contracting coronavirus is not a work injury, it could be an occupational disease covered by workers’ compensation if it was contracted as part of one’s work, whether that is by being required to travel to an area known for coronavirus outbreak or by contracting it from a patient in a medical setting,” she said in an email interview.

It would be up to the employer to look into how the virus was contracted, she said.

“An employer would want to investigate the circumstances under which the individual purportedly contracted the virus and determine whether compensability applies,” she said. “To be compensated as an occupational disease, the employee must prove the exposure was caused by a hazard existing in or from the workplace and that the symptoms are, in fact, consistent with the illness. These elements of proof are much harder when viral transmission is involved, as opposed to, say, a fairly static mold condition that can be tested in the workplace. The employer would want to know whether the employee traveled out of the country without the employer’s knowledge, or, in the medical setting, which patient(s) the employee interacted with who tested positive for the disease to help rule out other potential sources of transmission.”

The issue has entered the political arena with some democratic members of Congress suggesting they felt the Trump administration was not doing enough to protect Americans in light of the outbreak and worried about the virus spreading in the days and weeks to come.

“Just left the Administration briefing on the Coronavirus. Bottom line: They aren’t taking this seriously enough,” Senator Chris Murphy tweeted (D-CT) yesterday afternoon. “Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.”

In 2018, the Trump administration ordered the National Security Council to shut down its entire global health security unit, as well as reduce spending on the global disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, the NSC, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, including the elimination of the Complex Crises Fund.

President Trump, on the other hand, expressed to Fox News that America has “pretty much shut it down,” during an interview after the Super Bowl.

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