The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided return-to-work guidance for employers with workers at high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19. This includes, but is not limited to, workers with chronic lung disease, asthma, hypertension, severe heart conditions, weakened immunity, severe obesity, diabetes, liver disease, and chronic kidney disease.
The CDC’s guidance encourages employers to reduce high risk workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace and community. In particular, the CDC suggests various HR-based strategies for protecting and retaining high risk employees (and the workforce generally), including:
- Supporting and encouraging telework options (especially for high risk employees);
- Modifying duties for high risk employees to minimize contact with others;
- Implementing flexible sick leave and other leave policies;
- Establishing a roster of trained back-up staff available to step in during COVID-related absences;
- Limiting or cancelling non-essential travel;
- Posting notifications concerning COVID-19 related rights and precautions;
- Replacing in-person meetings with video or conference calls; and
- Providing COVID-19 related support services and points of contact to employees.
What About High-Risk Workers?
The CDC specifically recommends that workers at high risk for severe illness “shelter in place” during the initial phases of scaling up business operations. This sends a clear (but non-binding) message to employers that they should be allowing high risk workers to telecommute, or if that’s not feasible, should be helping them evaluate options under applicable leave laws or company leave plans and extending leaves of absence where qualifying.
Much of the remainder of the CDC guidance is old hat at this advanced stage in pandemic preparedness, including requiring social distancing, instituting cleaning and disinfecting protocols, promoting healthy hygiene practices such as handwashing, mandating masks or cloth face coverings, and monitoring employees for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.
What Employers Should Do
As federal and state agencies issue return-to-work guidance in rapid succession, it can be difficult to digest while dealing with the practical challenges of ramping up or reopening your business operations. When interfacing with high risk or vulnerable employee populations, the best practice is to be flexible, listen and understand your employees’ concerns, and get creative. Accommodations come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. If an employer can keep a high risk worker healthy and employed, it benefits all parties involved.
For those employers that may be hesitant to change company policy or procedure to comply with voluntary recommendations, be sure to analyze the legal obligations under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, which may entitle a pregnant employee or a high risk employee with a disability to an accommodation such as leave, if it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.
Further, employers with high risk workers should stay abreast of temporary state and local mandates requiring the accommodation of vulnerable individuals who do not necessarily have a disability (and, in some cases, those employees who reside with vulnerable individuals). For example, Governor Inslee in Washington State and Governor Polis in Colorado have both extended their state-wide orders requiring the accommodation of vulnerable individuals. Governor Inslee’s Proclamation, which prohibits employers from permanently replacing high risk workers, requires employers to offer alternative work assignments to high risk workers, and authorizes accrued leave usage in situations that might not normally be qualifying, was extended through August 1, 2020. Governor Polis’s Executive Order, which directs employers to accommodate vulnerable individuals (including those 65 years and older and pregnant employees), and prohibits them from being compelled to perform in-person work, was extended through July 1, 2020.
What ReedGroup is Doing
As always, ReedGroup is staying up-to-date on COVID-19 developments and supporting its clients through administration of company-specific personal and pandemic leave plans, as well as disability-related accommodations, as applicable. Clients with questions about options for accommodating high risk or vulnerable employee populations are encouraged to reach out to their Account Executives for more information.
If you’re looking for assistance managing claims or to ensure compliance across your organization, ReedGroup has solutions for you. Check out our offerings here. Want to stay abreast of developments and trends in absence management? Subscribe to this blog here.
Information provided on this blog is intended for general educational use. It is not intended to provide legal advice. ReedGroup does not provide legal services. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this or any other topic.