The novel coronavirus pandemic continues to have a profound impact our daily lives. Although COVID-19 is still present and continues to spread, many employers throughout the country are beginning to reopen offices.
Can employers safely reopen their offices?
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently provided guidelines to help employers navigate reopening their offices during the pandemic.
Within these guidelines, the federal agency recommends that employers check employees’ temperatures and symptoms when they arrive on site. The agency reminds employers who choose to conduct these checks to do so “safely and respectfully.” The CDC also recommends office spaces be reconfigured, as necessary, to respect social distancing guidelines. This includes keeping desks at least six feet apart and potentially putting up physical barriers to further separate workers.
Additional recommendations include:
- Remove common areas. Unfortunately, the return to work may not include a return to the water cooler. The CDC recommends employers remove “high-touch communal items” like water coolers and coffee pots. Instead, the agency states that employers should provide access to pre-packaged, single serving items.
- Ventilation. The agency encourages employers to keep windows open and/or otherwise make changes to help increase ventilation within the office space.
- Elevator use. If possible, the CDC recommends workers refrain from using elevators. If not, employers are encouraged to limit their use to better ensure social distancing within the elevator.
Employees can proactively reduce the risk of exposure by following the federal agency’s recommendation to frequently wash hands for at least 20 seconds and by refraining from physical contact, such as handshakes.
It is important to note the agency also recommends employers coordinate with state and local officials before finalizing reopening plans.
What if an employer does not comply with these recommendations?
Federal law requires employers to provide a safe working environment. Provisions are present that specifically address obligations during a pandemic. The exact implications of these provisions will depend on the details of the situation. As a result, those who suffer serious illness and believe exposure resulted from an employer’s failure to provide a safe working environment are wise to seek legal counsel.