Concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus is growing worldwide, with an emphasis on Washington state because of several significant cases. As of Monday afternoon (March 2), our state has reported six deaths, in King and Snohomish counties, from the illness caused by the virus known as COVID-19. In all, 18 cases of the illness have appeared in Washington, and health officials expect cases to increase as more people are tested. Over the weekend, President Donald Trump announced restrictions and strong warnings against travel to COVID-19 hotspots, such as China, South Korea and Italy. And international law firms have begun adjusting travel plans and taking necessary precautions.
This rapidly evolving situation makes it incumbent on workplaces – especially in Washington state – to take immediate and appropriate steps to be prepared with solid information and effective precautions.
At the time of this posting, the World Health Organization reported that COVID-19, technically known as SARS-CoV-2, had spread from China to 64 other countries, infecting more than 90,000 people and causing more than 3,000 deaths. The virus causes respiratory disease and flu-like systems that have proven fatal to some particularly among older patients. It all adds up to a set of circumstance that has particular impacts on and for the legal profession. In addition to protecting the rule of law in such a global and local crisis, legal professionals must also take steps to protect their colleagues and clients as well as their families.
According to the American Bar Association’s guidance in Surviving a Disaster: A Lawyer’s Guide to Disaster Planning, preparedness for a viral outbreak bares many of the recommendations for withstanding fire, hurricanes, or flooding. The ABA offers a preparedness checklist for law firms and solo practitioners that includes:
- Have a list of important emergency numbers quickly accessible in printed and electronic format.
- Be able to access critical client records remotely.
- Prioritized your firm’s functions by criticality.
- Have a “go kit” of technology, files, and other necessities if you need to work from home.
Even before last weekend, the ABA Journal reported law firms across the country were taking precautionary measures for a pandemic. The Journal reported that some firms had begun canceling retreats, meetings with foreign partners, and overseas travel. Some firms have asked staff to self-quarantine at home after returning from high-risk countries. Meanwhile, the federal judiciary is preparing for an outbreak too, Bloomberg Law reports. The plan calls for increased teleworking and teleconferencing as the situation worsens.
As the situation continues to evolve, law firms, solo practitioners, and organizations can monitor the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), and U.S. State Department websites for updates and advice on protecting their staff. The CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers is particularly useful.
According to WHO, COVID-19 spreads much like the flu. Transmission typically occurs when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales, sending droplets onto telephones, desks, and door handles. The virus can also transmit person to person a meter apart from of each other. Most people infected with the virus experience mild symptoms and soon recover; however, WHO says, the risk of serious illness rises with age. People over 40 seem to be more vulnerable than younger ones, and those with weakened immune systems and illnesses such as diabetes and heart or lung disease are at greater risk of serious illness. In consideration of COVID-19, WHO recommends employers stick to tips, including:
- Ensure the workplace is clean and hygienic with surfaces regularly wiped down with disinfectant.
- Promote hand-washing at the office with posters and other communication. And make sure visiting clients have places wash their hands with soap and water.
- Advise employees and clients to consult the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices before going abroad.
- Brief staff and clients if COVID-19 starts spreading locally.
- Direct anyone in the office with even a mild cough or low-grade fever (99 degrees F or more) to stay home, and make clear to employees that they will be able to count this time off as sick leave.
Employment attorneys for the blog Law and the Workplace write that as employers start to consider enacting employee travel restrictions and quarantine protocols for staff traveling from affected areas, employers should consult with counsel, as certain considerations including anti-discrimination, wage and hour, and leave policies could be a factor. The blog thoroughly outlines those factors in its Feb. 29 post, “Coronavirus and the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know.”
OSHA’s “General Duty Clause,” 29 U.S.C. Section 654, 5(a)1, requires employers to 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 employees.” Therefore, it is the responsibility of employers to protect employees from a pandemic virus.
Employers can fever screen and take action against an employee after the return from an affected area, according to Law and the Workplace, the blog states. Laws prohibiting disability discrimination (ADA, etc.) do not apply if the employer acts reasonably to prevent the possibility that an employee might become ill and disabled in the future (and infect co-workers). An employer can inquire about disabilities or require medical testing if: a) the exam is job-related per business necessity; or b) the employee reasonably poses a direct threat to health or safety.
As businesses in many industries prepare for the possibility of an outbreak, attorneys also should use necessary precautions when working with clients who may not be aware of safeguards and workplace laws. Now and always, thank you for following healthy and safe practices.
By WSBA staff