• How the Coronavirus Could Impact America’s Workforce

Hillary Redd Sospes

By: Hillary Redd

March 5, 2020

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, some workers have no choice but to work. Learn more about the steps you can take to protect your employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) as a public health emergency. With anxiety surging following the pervasive coverage of the spread of the coronavirus, employers are preparing to address the concerns of their workers.

Spreading Coronavirus Fear in the Workforce

There are many things that worry the everyday American worker in the age of fear about a spreading virus. For those who work in a coffee shop, delivery service or other in-person job, they worry about the customer who orders a glazed donut and then coughs, the coworker who has a an ache and chill but still showed up to work, or the parents whose child is touching every surface with their dirty fingers.

But mechanics, electricians, line workers, servers, teachers and many other workers in these industries don’t have much choice but to show up to work. Their only shield from potential coronavirus carriers is a 24-ounce bottle of aloe hand sanitizer, and maybe a face mask (which, according to the CDC and other health professionals, doesn’t actually protect you from COVID-19 and could make the spread worse).

Many jobs are the type of non-routine service work that can’t be automated or outsourced. Because workers in these positions often have substantial face-to-face customer contact, they face elevated coronavirus exposure risk if the virus spreads. And, in turn, could spread the virus to their coworkers and families if exposed.

What Experts Have to Say About COVID-19

The disease is said to have originated from exposure to infected animals in a seafood market in Wuhan, China and has spread through direct person-to-person transmission to thousands of people. The virus is concentrated in the respiratory tract (nose and lungs) and is, therefore, spread through droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person.

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus has grown globally to near 90,000, with over 100 infected in the United States. While employees of companies like Twitter are being encouraged to work from home to protect themselves from the virus, people whose jobs depend on in-person interaction, feel more exposed than ever.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was passed to help ensure safe and healthful working conditions for American workers. The Act’s “General Duty Clause” requires that employers provide “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.”

Because the transmission of the coronavirus generally occurs via respiratory means from close personal contact with others, employers in the U.S. have a duty to devise and implement a plan that keeps their workers safe from the disease.

How to Protect Your Worker’s from Coronavirus

The CDC encourages employers to review their business continuity plans in the event of a possible coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. As the duration and severity of the coronavirus event is undetermined, employers should make short and long-term plans of action.

Below are some of the recommended strategies:

  • Urge sick employees to stay home
  • Emphasize hand hygiene
  • Reiterate good coughing and sneezing etiquette and handwashing
  • Routine disinfecting of surfaces
  • Establish an infectious disease outbreak response plan
  • Ready your company’s infrastructure for remote workers
  • Address the impact of supply chain interruptions and help those workers who work on the supply line or are outsourced are taken care of when they stay home
  • Prepare for absenteeism in the workplace

To sum up, employers should keep themselves – and their employees – updated with the CDC’s recommendations, implement the common sense precautions listed above, and be prepared for a bumpy ride over the next several weeks as we all learn more about the real nature of the threat.

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