On Wednesday April 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines making it easier for essential employees to get back to work after exposure to COVID-19. Previously, the CDC recommended that any worker exposed to the disease self-quarantine for 14 days, a protocol that could effectively shut down an essential business if an infected employee unwittingly had close contacts with many co-workers. The CDC has now indicated that critical infrastructure workers may continue working after exposure as long as they are asymptomatic and follow certain safety precautions.
The CDC considers a worker exposed to COVID-19 when (1) a member of the worker’s household has a confirmed or suspected case of the disease or (2) the worker has been in close contact—meaning within 6 feet—of a person with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. Acknowledging that asymptomatic people may be contagious, the CDC set the timeframe for exposure to include the 48 hours before the individual showed symptoms.
Under the new guidelines, essential workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic may continue to work if the following practices are followed:
- Pre-Screen: Employers should measure the employee’s temperature and assess symptoms prior to them starting work. Ideally, temperature checks should happen before the individual enters the facility.
- Regular Monitoring: As long as the employee doesn’t have a temperature or symptoms, they should self-monitor under the supervision of their employer’s occupational health program.
- Wear a Mask: While in the workplace, the employee should wear a face mask at all times for 14 days after last exposure. Employers can issue facemasks or, in the event of shortages, can approve employee-supplied cloth face coverings.
- Social Distance: The employee should maintain 6 feet distance from others and practice social distancing in the workplace as work duties permit.
- Disinfect and Clean Work Spaces: Employers should routinely clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, and shared electronic equipment.
The CDC also emphasizes that any employee who becomes sick during the workday should be sent home immediately, and all surfaces in their workplace should be cleaned and disinfected. After the ill employee is sent home, the employer must compile information on all persons (co-workers, clients, customers, etc.) who had contact with the employee during the time they exhibited symptoms and the two days prior. Others at the facility who had close contact with the ill employee (i.e. within 6 feet) are considered exposed and thus must follow the above protocol.
The CDC guidance also includes additional practices employers should consider implementing, such as increasing the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces, ensuring workers do not share headsets, and staggering breaks to prevent workers from congregating in the break room.
The guidance applies to all critical infrastructure workers on the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) list, which encompasses a wide range of workers including nurses, police officers, grocery store clerks, bank tellers, and truck drivers.
Employers who implement these recommendations should be prepared for pushback from employees who do not feel comfortable continuing to work after exposure to COVID-19. Employers must consider in advance how they will respond to employees who refuse to return to work (e.g., will they offer unpaid leave or some other accommodation, impose discipline, etc.).
The Labor and Employment team at WilmerHale has been following these developments closely and is available to provide legal advice regarding return-to-work protocols tailored to the specific needs of your business.