Businesses across the country starting to ease back to life face a new challenge: Keeping workers safe during the coronavirus pandemic. They’re implementing new protocols — temperature checks, social distancing, staggered schedules and contact tracing — but the stakes are high without a vaccine or treatment in sight, experts said.
Indeed, a coronavirus outbreak could be devastating for companies and employees alike, whether they work at a meatpacking plant or in an office building.
“Businesses face existential threats all the time. They are built to make decisions that will determine the life or death of the company,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the staffing firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. “Choices that affect the life or death of their employees now need to be made for the first time. The stakes have never been higher.”
Brian Kuhn, a data analyst in Roxbury, New Jersey, worked in an office with about 50 people until mid-March, when his company switched to remote work. He has not yet been asked to go back to the office, and would not feel comfortable returning, even with precautions in place.
“I don’t think any of that prevents someone coming in who is asymptomatic and spreading it,” he said. “It poses a risk to each of us that just is not necessary at all. … Prevention is the most important thing.”
Here are some questions and answers on what returning to work will look like:
How are companies monitoring employee health?
Companies are introducing a variety of new tools and techniques to monitor the health of their employees.
The simplest method is conducting temperature checks, using no-touch thermometers. U.S. automakers, for example, make employees fill out questionnaires daily to see if they have symptoms, take their temperature before they enter buildings, and require them to wear gloves, masks and face shields on the job.
While these measures can help prevent COVID-19 from spreading, they don’t limit the risk to zero. Individuals can have high temperatures for reasons unrelated to coronavirus, while people who are infected can be asymptomatic but still spread the disease.
“Checking temperature doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with COVID,” said Aiha Nguyen, a program director at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York, a nonprofit organization that studies the cultural impact of technological change.
Employer-led contact tracing is another tool companies will use to reopen. Contact tracing is a method breaking chains of transmission by of identifying people who may have come into contact with a COVID-19-positive individual.
Digital apps that use Bluetooth or other signals to track people and alert users who have come into contact with infected individuals can supplement human contact tracing efforts. Accounting consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers is testing a contract tracing app that it plans to use internally and also offer to corporate clients.
A company’s human resource department can work backwards to notify people who have been in proximity with an infected employee, who identity remains anonymous. In some cases, the data is sent to a remote server.
Contact tracing can be done offline, with employees self reporting at the end of each work day who they have been in contact with. Then if an employee tests positive the company can contact the people they overlapped with.
Social distancing can be a challenge but some employers are getting around that by staggering employee hours and limiting the number of people in the workplace. Google, for example, plans to reopen some offices at the beginning of June, limiting office capacity to 10% to 15%.
Is it legal for companies to track employees’ health?
Regulations vary by state, but generally it is legal to require employees to download tracing apps. Employers must, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, give workers “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
The American Disabilities Act prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances. The coronavirus qualifies as an exception because it has been deemed a “direct threat” under ADA guidelines by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That means employers can test employees if it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.
Companies probably couldn’t test an employee isolating at home, but it becomes necessary when bringing people back to the office during a pandemic. They still have to comply with confidentiality rules laid out by the ADA, so temperature checks and other medical inquiries should be kept private. Health records should also be kept separate from employee personnel files.
What about employee privacy rights?
Contact tracing involves collecting sensitive data about people and comes with privacy concerns. Health care providers cannot disclose patients’ medical information to other entities under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However, employers and contact tracing apps aren’t covered by HIPPA, according to Michele Gilman, a privacy lawyer and fellow at Data & Society.
“One of the concerns here is that this will open the door to employers gathering massive amounts of health data on employees,” she said. “A lot of people believe health data is protected by the HIPPA statute. That law does not apply to employers. Employers have free reign over collection of this data and what they do with it.”
PwC and other app makers say they won’t collect information on users. PwC, for example, says no name or other personal information is associated with the data and the data is deleted in 45 days. But without federal regulation, employers are left to police themselves.
What are the guidelines for reopening?
Companies must comply with each state’s guidelines for reopening, most of which include different requirements for employee screening employees, performing health checks and social distancing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers guidance for businesses and employers on how to reopen, including recommendations to minimize potential risk to employees.
It has also posted six one-page “decision tool” documents that use traffic signs and other graphics to tell organizations what they should consider before reopening.