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COVID-19 in the Workplace: Frequently Asked Questions

July 08, 2020

Employers are swimming in a sea of health-related guidance from various federal agencies and state and local health authorities, all claiming to address risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local health authorities recommend or require that individuals:

  • Socially distance (stay 6 feet away from others)
  • Wear a mask in public or common spaces or when one cannot socially distance
  • Practice good hygiene

Some employers put physical controls and other measures in place to permit social distancing and good hygiene at work sites. Employers have also encouraged or required wearing masks in common areas and when individuals cannot socially distance. Some have implemented daily health screens for employees coming to a work site. These steps are meant to reduce the risk of employees getting exposed to COVID-19 and spreading it to their friends, family and co-workers.

Nevertheless, even the most vigilant adherent to these measures may get or come in close contact with someone with COVID-19. As employees experience COVID-19 in their work and home lives, employers, particularly human resources professionals, are addressing employee questions about exposure and its impact. The following FAQs address common questions that have arisen during the pandemic.

Definitions: The CDC often discusses exposure in terms of individuals in “close contact” for a “prolonged period of time.” Close contact means within about 6 feet. Prolonged period of time generally means at least 15 minutes, though the time period may not matter if someone is in close contact with a person and, for example, the person sneezes on them—especially if neither is wearing a mask. Some common sense about exposure is required.

Note: In these FAQs, “close contact” is shorthand for “close contact for a prolonged period of time.” The FAQs assume there is a daily health screen in place at the business.

1. I have COVID-19. When can I return to the work site?

You can come back when your health care provider clears you to return. Confirm your clearance with human resources (HR) and pass the daily health screen before entering the work site.

2. I work with someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19 (i.e., reported/showed symptoms). What should I do?

If you were in close contact with the person, stay home for 14 days after the last exposure to that person and practice social distancing. Self-monitor for symptoms. If you get tested and it is positive, see question 1 for guidance. If your test is negative, you still must quarantine for 14 days. Health authorities say symptoms can appear 2-14 days after exposure.

If you were not in close contact, self-monitor. You may come to the work site if you pass the daily health screen. Contact HR to confirm your status on coming to the work site.

3. I was told that I was in close contact to someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19. What should I do?

If you are at the work site, leave as soon as you can. Tell HR who you were in close contact with at the work site. Stay home for 14 days after the last exposure and practice social distancing. Self-monitor for symptoms. If you get tested and it is positive, see question 1 for guidance. If your test is negative, you still must quarantine for 14 days. Health authorities say symptoms can appear 2-14 days after exposure.

4. What should I do if I am advised that someone I was around was confirmed or is suspected to have COVID-19, but I was not in close contact with them?

If you were not in close contact, self-monitor, but you may come into the work site, so long as you pass the daily health screen.

5. How soon should I get tested if I have been exposed?

Health authorities say it can take 2-14 days for symptoms to appear after exposure. There is no guidance on how soon after potential exposure to get tested at this point.

6. I was in close contact with someone who was in close contact with someone else who has or is suspected to have COVID-19. What should I do?

If you were not in close contact with the person who has or is suspected to have COVID-19—meaning you were one step removed from the potentially infected person—you should self-monitor. You can remain in the work site and continue to come to the work site if you continue to pass the daily health screen.

7. If I have symptoms that CDC (or the daily health screen) lists, I get a COVID-19 test and it is negative, and I was not in close contact with someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19, when can I return to the work site?

You can return to the work site when you can pass the daily health screen.

8. I have symptoms, but I can’t get a test. What should I do?

If you were not in close contact with someone with or suspected to have COVID-19, you cannot return to the work site until you can pass the daily health screen.

If you were in close contact with someone with or suspected to have COVID-19, you have to remain out of the work site for 14 days. See question 2 for guidance.

9. How will I know if I was exposed to someone in the work site who has or is suspected to have COVID-19?

Anyone we know of who was in close contact with a person with or who is suspected to have COVID-19 will be notified by HR, consistent with confidentiality requirements of federal law.

10. Will I be told if someone I work with was exposed to someone else at the work site with COVID-19?

If you were in close contact with this person, you should be informed consistent with confidentiality requirements of federal law.

11. If I go on vacation, travel for work or personal reasons, or attend weddings, graduations, large family or other gatherings, do I have to quarantine?

You do not have to quarantine simply because you traveled or attended a large gathering. Traveling on a common carrier or attending larger gatherings potentially increases risks for contracting COVID-19. Practice the same mitigating steps you do at work if you travel or attend such events: socially distance, wear a mask (especially where you cannot socially distance), and practice good hygiene. Consult CDC and state and local guidelines for where you live and where you plan to go, in case one imposes quarantines or limits on travel, and plan accordingly.

12. When should I contact HR?

Tell HR if you cannot pass the daily health screen or you have been in close contact with someone at work or home who has or is suspected to have COVID-19.

Please contact Reed L. Russell or any other member of Phelps’ Labor and Employment team if you have questions or need compliance advice and guidance. For more information related to COVID-19, see Phelps’ COVID-19: Client Resource Portal.