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Coronavirus – Next Test for Employers

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) was originally detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Provence, China, in the early or midpart of 2019 and is now a respiratory disease that has been detected in over 50 locations internationally with at least 137 cases confirmed in the United States and four confirmed in the State of Illinois. In January of this year, the World Health Organization declared that the Coronavirus was “a public health emergency of international concern”. The Coronavirus is “a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases”. Unfortunately, the new Coronavirus COVID-19 is a new strain that has not previously been identified in humans. It may cause mild to severe fever, respiratory problems and stomach-related issues and has caused the worldwide death of over 3,214 individuals.

What are Employers to do? The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, along with various state and local laws, provides that the Employer has a general duty to have a work environment that is free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious physical harm to its Employees. What should Employers contemplate doing as the Coronavirus continues to grow.

The Center for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) has provided the following Interim Guidance for Employers:

  1. Encourage sick Employees to stay at home. Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness should stay at home and not come back to work until they are free of fever and other symptoms for at least 24 hours.
  2. Separate sick Employees, those who appear to have respiratory illness symptoms such as a cough or shortness of breath from other Employees and send them home.
  3. Encourage healthy practices, including emphasizing that Employees stay home when sick and urging Employees to clean their hands often either with alcohol-based hand sanitizers or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Perform routine environmental cleaning which cleans all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs.

Employers should consider the implications of requiring employees suspected of being ill with the virus to leave work. Even employers who are not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (fewer than 50 employees) should strongly consider granting medical leave to even those employees who have no vacation, PTO or sick leave available for use. Additional concerns that will need to be addressed are whether employees required to take a medical leave should be paid and whether the identification of employees suspected of having been infected by the virus may give rise to claims of race or national origin discrimination. Although having numerous employees out on sick leave may adversely impact business in the short term, pro-active identification and required medical leave may avoid a catastrophic reduction in workforce.

While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a Level 3 (eliminate all non-essential travel) Travel Warning to China and South Korea and a Level 2 Travel Alert to Japan, Italy and Iran, there has been no complete ban of travel although a number of airlines have curtailed flights. As a precautionary measure, Employers should consider whether traveling to large conferences or events is essential for their business practices.

Above all, it is incumbent upon Employers to educate their Employees and use a commonsense approach as medical professionals try to get their arms around what is becoming a very serious problem.

Questions? Contact attorney Walter Liszka in our Chicago office at (312) 629-9300 or by email at

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