Previously shuttered businesses and offices are gearing up to reopen as many states are beginning to lift closure orders.  Each employer will need to determine when it is legally permitted to reopen based upon state and local mandates.  While plans to reopen will vary widely from state to state and company to company, all employers should take appropriate safety measures to reduce potential exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, to ensure the health of their employees and visitors while reducing liability and business risks.  The recommendations below may change rapidly and we advise that you double check the information provided against the links provided to cross-check any changes that may have been made by the referenced agencies since this was posted.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 recommends taking certain steps to reduce the risk of worker exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.  Such recommendations include:

  1. Developing an infectious disease preparedness and response plan – The plan should incorporate state guidance, examine risk factors and controls to address those risks, and identify additional steps to reduce risk of worker exposure.
  2. Preparing to implement basic infection prevention measures – Such plans should include promoting good hygiene and infection control as well as encouraging appropriate employee behavior (e.g., encouraging workers to stay home if they are sick and to cough and sneeze into their elbows).
  3. Developing policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate – Policies should include encouraging employees to self-monitor and prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals.
  4. Developing, implementing, and communicating workplace flexibilities and protections – Such plans should include encouraging sick employees to stay home and ensuring that sick leave policies allow for it.
  5. Implementing workplace controls (engineering, administrative, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE)) – Some controls may include air filters or physical barriers, alternating days or shifts to reduce the number of employees in a facility, and proper PPE.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends, and many local jurisdictions are requiring, that people wear masks or face coverings when they are in public, including in the workplace.  Recognizing that masks are in short supply, the CDC recommendation allows the use of homemade cloth face coverings and provides instructions for making them and their care.  Employers that will reopen should consider encouraging (or requiring where mandated) employees to wear masks in the workplace.

Paramount to any reopening will be thoughtful consideration regarding both timing and potential operational challenges.  For instance, maintaining six feet of separation between employees may prove to be difficult in areas such as breakrooms and rest rooms.  Opening multi-story office buildings could result in long lines and wait times in elevator banks.  Employers should plan to develop protocols and policies to address these challenges and consider allowing employees who can telecommute effectively to continue doing so.

Finally, employers should consider implementing employee symptom or temperature screening upon reopening.  Despite health privacy concerns, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued updated guidance indicating employers may screen employees’ temperature or require employees to complete a symptom questionnaire related to COVID-19 and may even administer a COVID-19 test to detect the presence of the virus.  Unfortunately, official guidance regarding how to implement such screening has not been provided by federal authorities; however the CDC list of symptoms may be relied upon as a basis for developing a symptom questionnaire.

In addition to OSHA and CDC guidance, employers should check within their local jurisdictions, at both state and county/city levels, for executive orders or public health orders that may contain additional measures that are mandated prior to returning to work.

Additional resources can be found in:

Please also see Reed Smith’s COVID-19: Return to work questionnaire.