Coronavirus, whose formal name is COVID-19, has been the subject of much media attention since the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, late last year. Just like recent outbreaks of the swine flu, the avian flu, SARS and the West Nile virus, each new “bug” creates fear surrounding a previously unknown threat. While there are tens of thousands of cases in China, as of February 19, 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. The confirmed cases were limited to seven states located on the perimeter of the country.
According to the CDC, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect and then spread between people.
To put the current coronavirus outbreak in context, the CDC estimates there have been between 26 MILLION and 36 MILLION cases of flu in the U.S. this season and an estimated 15,000 to 36,000 deaths. In fact, this year’s flu season is the worst in almost 20 years. While the majority of these deaths and hospitalizations have occurred in people over age 65, this year’s flu has impacted children and younger adults in greater numbers than usual.
While no one knows for sure the extent to which the coronavirus will take hold in the U.S., employers should take steps now to plan ahead so that they will be able to maintain normal business operations. The challenges for any business facing coronavirus or any other disease outbreak involve a multitude of conflicting legal obligations. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and similar state laws, employers have a general duty and obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment, even when the work occurs outside the employer’s physical premises. Furthermore, under these health and safety laws, employers must not place their employees in situations that are likely to cause serious physical harm or death.
Conversely, overreacting by implementing broad-based bans and making business decisions about employees that are not based on statistical realities could get an employer sued under laws that prohibit discrimination based upon disability (perceived or real) and national origin discrimination, among others.
Properly planning for and implementing plans to deal with the coronavirus is legally and operationally complex. Listing all of the considerations for such plans are too numerous for this brief blog article. By way of example, employers who have operations in Hubei Province in China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, will face far more difficult and complex challenges than an employer with a single facility in the middle of the U.S. However, at a minimum here are some things every business should be doing:
Proper planning for and dealing with individualized employee situations implicates a whole range of employment laws, such as ADA, GINA, OSHA, Title VII, ERISA, as does the nature of your business. To deal with these legal issues, you should consult with your attorney.
Finally, there are a variety of web-based resources available to assist you in planning, preparation, and monitoring the spread of the coronavirus on a global basis, including the CDC at www.cdc.gov, OSHA at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/, and the World Health Organization https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.
Click here for Foley's Coronavirus Resource Center for insights and resources to support your business during this challenging time.