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Growing concerns of coronavirus should spur plans — not panic — in the workplace

Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Business News

Chances are, if you work for a large company, you received an email like one sent to Volkswagen employees Monday: Coronavirus concerns mean some limits on business travel, everyone should remember to "wash your hands frequently" and stay home if sick.

As the viral disease, dubbed COVID-19, continues to spread, some employers are canceling conferences and limiting travel, checking supplies and dusting off their emergency preparedness plans, just as they have for previous outbreaks or for natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

All workplaces, say corporate benefit and health experts, should have plans that focus on preparation, not fear. Currently, cases of COVID-19 are still rare in the U.S. -- far fewer than seasonal influenza cases.

"Scaring the crap out of employees isn't helpful," said labor and employment attorney Mark Neuberger in Miami. "Employee communication is critical. Stay in touch and up-to-date" with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information and "don't panic" employees.

He and other experts recommend employers outline policies about teleworking, travel and sick leave; monitor recommendations from the CDC and local health officials; and stock up on needed office supplies and other products that might be affected by a global manufacturing slowdown.

The CDC has said the current risk in the U.S. from the virus is low, but it encourages employers to develop plans in case the virus becomes more widespread, potentially resulting in containment efforts that might include closing schools, limiting public transportation or canceling large gatherings.

 

Still, while emergency plans and workplace policies are important, employers are warned not to go too far.

"They can't do it in a discriminatory fashion," said Sara Rosenbaum, a health law professor at George Washington University. "The thing that is most worrisome is for people of Asian descent, whether they are singled out. That would be Exhibit A for discrimination."

Federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and other statutes, limit the types of health information employers can seek about their employees ? and they prohibit discrimination based on disability or other factors, including national origin.

The types of questions matter.

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