Your coworker just returned from a trip abroad – and they don’t appear to be in very good health. Under normal circumstances, sharing close quarters with your coughing coworker wouldn’t be as alarming as it is right now, during a pandemic.
You don’t want to upset your coworker or cause unwarranted Coronavirus panic in your office – but you also don’t want this person to continue coming into work if there’s a chance they may have it.
What’s the right way to handle the situation? Here are a few things to consider if you suspect a fellow employee may have Coronavirus.
Talk to your coworker
Whether your coworker has a common cold or the coronavirus, having them come into the office isn’t good for anyone’s health. But before you sound the alarms, Maureen Crawford Hentz, VP of Human Resources at A.W. Chesterton Company says calmly approaching the employee can be a good first step.
“Without a test, it is impossible to tell if a person has coronavirus, the flu or just a cold,” says Hentz. “However, given the heightened awareness about COVID-19, of course, you may be concerned. Most workplaces have ‘stay at home if you are sick’ policies in place during this pandemic. You could suggest to your coworker that because she is sick, she should take advantage of the policy and head home. Then, go wash your hands.”
Know your employee rights
“In the US, employees are specifically protected under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, so if an employee becomes infected at work, it is quite conceivable that the employer would face financial penalties,” explains attorney David Reischer. “An employer with no communicable-illness policy in a time of the clear and self-evident rising risk of exposure to the Coronavirus could be subject to lawsuits related to workers’ compensation, unfair labor practice, and negligence.”
This is important because if your coworker says they aren’t able to work remotely or need to stay in the office for some reason, and they do end up having the virus and infecting others, this could be a violation of the act. If this is the case, it may be time to escalate things to HR.
If your efforts to coax your coworker to head home and rest haven’t been effective, privately speak with an HR representative to explain the situation and let them know you don’t currently feel safe given the circumstances. “Your employer has an obligation to ensure a safe environment for its employees,” says Reischer. “Any company that does not have a well thought out communicable-illness policy and response plans could be exposed to legal liability.”
“HR needs to be the single point of contact for employees reporting illness and for public health, agencies informing the company of possible involved parties (people who touched the business and are now definitively diagnosed as ill),” echoes Hentz.
In terms of employee health, Hentz says companies should be taking action to remind people to wash their hands, asking people to use their sick time to stay home sick and not come into work, and allowing people to work from home if they can.
To ensure employees aren’t coming in to work sick to stick it out and avoid lost wages, Hentz says HR professionals should also reach out to their leave and disability insurance providers to determine what policies and funding resources are in place to provide support.
Inquire about working remotely
The CDC has stated that the best way to prevent this illness is to avoid exposure. If you feel that your office environment (or work commute) violates that recommendation and your employer has not yet extended an official work from home policy, talk with your manager.