Last updated: May 5, 2020

The Coronavirus Pandemic

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak beginning late in 2019 has reached pandemic proportions, affecting individuals, institutions, and businesses. Public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued guidance for employers to help curb the transmission of COVID-19. For employers, these resources provide invaluable information on the importance of encouraging sick or exposed employees to stay home, hygiene in the workplace, and safety while traveling. Given the rapid development of the pandemic, guidance such as limiting the size of face-to-face meetings and events has been upended by cancellations, corporate travel bans and local “shelter in place” orders.

Closing the Health and Productivity Guidance Gap

What is unclear from these guidance statements is how employers can best manage the day-to-day practicalities of business continuity while simultaneously processing sick day, leave and time off requests under unprecedented circumstances. What’s more, while switching some employees to remote work might lessen some of the productivity impact of adapting to pandemic conditions, it does not lessen the need for care management among employees with chronic conditions and health promotion efforts that enable other employees to continue working at a high performance level.

To help close this information gap, IBI reached out to health care and absence management professionals in its member community for employer guidance on managing the health and productivity of their workers, complying with current regulations, and preparing for emerging contingencies.i We gathered material through personal correspondence, a snap survey, and from client-focused coronavirus web pages, blog posts, and guidance statements.ii

Our summary of guidance for four key health and productivity areas—including critical areas where guidance is not yet widely available—is provided below. These areas and the guidance provided will be updated as more information is made available and as events further develop. Employers seeking detailed guidance are encouraged to consult the original resources or their current supplier partners. IBI is also making IBIBridge, an online networking platform, available for employers to share strategies, perspective and questions around COVID-19 impacts. Join the conversation here.

Contributors and Source Material

Guidance Sections

Managing leaves during times of uncertainty

Leaves for diagnosed coronavirus

Leaves related to coronavirus response

Symptomatic but undiagnosed employees

FMLA

Workers’ Compensation

Quarantine

Care resources for employees with chronic illnesses

Coping with Mental health issues/stress

Readiness to resume business operations

Managing leaves during times of uncertainty

Leaves for diagnosed coronavirus

At the time of this writing, there were more than 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE). Certifying leaves among diagnosed employees is fairly straightforward. Coronavirus will qualify for short-term disability (STD) benefits for eligible employees, as a serious health condition under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and likely under state and local leave acts as well.

Leaves related to coronavirus response

Symptomatic but undiagnosed employees
However, leave policies may be more complicated for employees who are symptomatic but have not been tested or confirmed to have coronavirus. For example, an illness absence of undefined cause (or which is diagnosed as a qualifying condition such as the flu) that lasts long enough to exceed an STD elimination period may trigger eligibility for benefits.

FMLA
Without certification from a medical provider—which may prove hard to obtain under the current strain on the health care system and the lack of available coronavirus tests—job protection under FMLA may not be required, though employers may choose to voluntarily extend leave rather than insist on a potentially exposed employee’s return to work. The Department of Labor (DOL) currently encourages a flexible policy, to support both employees and pandemic mitigation strategies.

Workers’ Compensation
Additionally, coronavirus infections that occurred in the workplace or during business travel may be covered under Workers’ Compensation (WC) rather than an employer’s STD policy. As in many cases of infectious disease, the challenge is determining where, when and how transmission occurred in to classify the diagnosis as work-related.

Quarantine
More challenging are cases where an employee is quarantined due to possible exposure to coronavirus or must remain home for childcare when schools are closed. For some employees, the recently passed federal law will provide temporary sick leave.

The interim advice in other cases is to allow paid time off (PTO) where this is available. Otherwise, emergency policies that extend job protection and wage replacements under such circumstances may be implemented. For example, by broadening existing disaster and weather emergency continuity plans to include epidemics and pandemics. In all cases, employers should ensure that their policies comply with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) pandemic flu guidelines and the recently passed Federal law.

Care resources for employees with chronic illnesses

Many employees who live with chronic illnesses preserve their health and productivity by adhering to carefully designed care management plans. The priority of preventing the spread of coronavirus may disrupt workplace-based care management programs. Given instructions to self-isolate and maintain social distance, some employees who live with chronic illnesses may avoid visits to providers for essential care or to pharmacies for medications. Either scenario—in addition to time demands associated with caring for children who cannot attend closed schools or childcare facilities—can complicate efforts to manage chronic illnesses.

The guidance below may help employees manage their chronic illnesses.

  • Access to virtual health resources, such as video- and telemedicine, can help avoid some disruptions to medically supervised care management plans.
  • Coordinating pre-authorization for early prescription refills and the use of online/mail-order pharmacy benefits may also help ensure that employees can access medications that are essential for managing chronic conditions.

Coping with Mental health issues/stress

To state the obvious, pandemic of a novel, and in some cases, deadly, disease will provoke acute stress and anxiety in many people. Employees who struggle with mental health conditions such as anxiety , adjustment , or mood disorders (e.g., depression) may be at particular risk of a serious episode during and after the crisis. Financial pressures brought on by temporary furloughs (for example, as a result of a drop in demand for a company’s services due to “shelter in place” restrictions), and even isolation among employees who are temporarily working from home, may trigger acute mental health symptoms.

The guidance below may help employees cope with stress and mental health issues.

  • Keeping in regular contact with employees who are working from home and ensuring they have what they need to be productive in their new setting may help alleviate some risk of social isolation.
  • To help employees cope with the stresses brought on by the pandemic and connect with professional mental health resources when necessary, employers may consider redoubling communications about their Employee Assistance Plans (EAP). EAPs have established themselves as a valuable benefit for employees in times of need, yet these programs are also notoriously underpromoted and underutilized.
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