By Kari Bray and Jonathan Moore / Snohomish Health District
Workplaces are doing things differently during the coronavirus pandemic to prevent the spread of illness. It can be confusing and frustrating at times for workers as well as supervisors and business owners.
There have been cases of COVID-19 in workplaces in Snohomish County, and there will be more as businesses reopen or expand operations. The Health District’s business and employer response team have worked with more than 80 employers on COVID-19 outbreaks, plus dozens more on single cases and implementation of workplace precautions. More people going back to work means more in-person contact, which is how this disease spreads.
We urge businesses to take all recommended precautions, like requiring masks, distancing employees as well as customers, sanitizing surfaces and equipment, optimizing ventilation, offering telework options when possible, and ensuring people who are ill do not come to work. This includes allowing employees the leave and flexibility they need to remain home until they are no longer contagious.
Creating safe and healthy workplaces is crucial if we want to increase and sustain economic activity during the pandemic.
However, even with best efforts, cases can happen. This disease is good at getting around.
It is essential that employers work with public health to address cases in the workplace and reduce the likelihood that an outbreak will worsen.
Employer notification and contact tracing
When someone who is employed tests positive for COVID-19, public health staff begin the process of employer notification as well as contact tracing. There are three main steps. First, a case investigator contacts the person who has tested positive and interviews them.
This interview is also the initial step in contact tracing. The case investigator will ask if the person is employed and if they worked when they were potentially contagious. The contagious period spans two days before until at least 10 days after the start of symptoms. If someone does not have symptoms, the contagious period is two days before until at least 10 days after the positive test date.
If the employee potentially exposed anyone in their workplace, the investigator will consult the Health District’s epidemiologists to determine whether this is an isolated case or part of an outbreak.
A COVID-19 outbreak in a place of employment is when two or more employees who are not household members become ill with COVID within a 14-day period. The exception is long term care facilities, where one case is considered an outbreak due to the high-risk nature of residents.
If it is determined that there is an outbreak, public health staff will call the employer to verify that the infected person works for them and that the employer is aware of the case. An online form is available at www.snohd.org/employernotifications to designate the best person at a workplace for public health to contact in the event of an outbreak.
The interviewer will request that the facility gather a complete list of close work contacts within 24 hours. This includes anyone who:
• was within 6 feet of the positive employee for 15 or more minutes (this could include taking lunch or breaks), or
• frequently shares tools or equipment that are not sanitized between users or with ungloved hands, or
• carpools to and from the worksite.
Follow instructions on securely providing this information to the Health District. Do not send it by regular email because transmission of health information via un-encrypted, non-secure portals is a violation of privacy laws. Each person on the list will be contacted by public health to discuss their status as a close contact, how to quarantine and for how long, and to help answer questions.
Public health staff will also talk with the employer about measures for employee safety. These might include screening employees, cleaning and disinfecting, or providing personal protective equipment.
Finally, a site visit team will work with the employer. A site visit is not an inspection. It is a conversation focused on education and empowerment. The site visit team will walk through the facility, talk about current safety standards, and provide recommendations on how to meet them. If the facility has an outbreak, the site visit is required. If the facility has a single case, a visit is optional.
An employee may hear of a positive test result directly from their medical provider before the Health District has received the case report from the laboratory. If an employee reports to their supervisor that they have tested positive, the employer can email CDQuestions@snohd.org or call 425.339.5278. Again, do not send an employee’s personal medical information by email. An example of an appropriate email would be, “An employee has reported that they tested positive for COVID-19 at my workplace. As the (supervisor, owner, manager), I would like to consult with public health staff. My contact number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.”
For employees, what happens if I get sick and don’t have enough leave or am told I need to be at work?
Legal protections have been enacted and expanded to support workers during the pandemic. In Washington, several mechanisms are in place to help those whose employment has been affected. These expand on pre-existing leave benefits, and new ones also have been created via emergency orders to protect workers’ rights.
Employers “may not discharge, discipline, or otherwise discriminate against” employees who need to access these benefits or file a complaint, according to the FFCRA.
Under the FFCRA, an employee qualifies for paid sick time if the employee is unable to work because they:
• are required to stay home under a COVID-19 isolation and quarantine order (a local order is in place for Snohomish County) or are caring for someone subject to such an order,
• have been told by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine, or are caring for someone who has been told to self-quarantine,
• have COVID-19 symptoms and are waiting on test results,
• are caring for a child whose school or child care is closed for COVID-related reasons, or
• are experiencing a similar situation as those outlined above (as specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Secretaries of Labor and Treasury)
The FFCRA requires covered employers to provide up to 80 hours/two weeks of sick leave and up to 10 additional weeks of family leave. Employers and employees should take time to review the details. For example, the leave must be paid but may not necessarily be paid at 100% of the employee’s normal rate.
Employers covered by the FFCRA qualify for reimbursement through refundable tax credits for all costs associated with qualified paid and family and medical leave accessed by an employee through the FFCRA, as well as certain costs associated with maintaining employee health care coverage while the employee is on leave.
When can an employee return to work after testing positive for COVID-19, or after being quarantined as a close contact? Do they need a negative test result?
A table is available online providing general isolation and quarantine guidance. A few key reminders:
• Someone who has tested positive should not return to work until they have been without fever for at least 24 hours, their other symptoms are improving, AND at least 10 days have passed since they first got sick. Those without symptoms should wait at least 10 days after their positive test.
• Someone who is a close contact of a confirmed case but who does not test positive still needs to finish the full 14-day quarantine period after their last exposure to the positive case, even if they do not have symptoms.
• Perhaps most importantly, if someone is experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, etc.), they should not be at work regardless of testing status.
Employers should not require employees to present a negative test before returning to work or starting a new job, as it is likely to cause unnecessary delays and disruptions. Pieces of the virus can remain in the airway for up to several weeks after recovery and can cause the test to be falsely positive long after the case is no longer contagious.
Employees can also take a look at this DOH tool to help them track the timeline for going back to work. If you have a weakened immune system, or if you had severe illness from COVID-19, your healthcare provider may recommend that your isolation be extended (e.g., until 20 days after onset of illness).
Can employers provide child care or learning centers for their employees’ families?
Child care needs and school closures have made work schedules challenging for many parents, and employers are coming up with creative options to help, including flexible hours, remote work, and learning “pods” or child care groups for their employees’ children. Parents also may want to contact the free statewide child care referral line operated by the Child Care Aware Family Center.
State law requires that any person or entity, including an employer, who provides child care outside a child’s home must be licensed by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, unless an exemption applies. Employers and others considering providing or arranging for child care should first understand if a license is required by consulting with DCYF. More information on early learning and child care licensing is available on the DCYF website.
It is important that employers who are arranging for child care and/or remote learning options in the workplace or at any location become familiar with and adhere to the Washington State Department of Health’s child care, youth development and day camps guidelines. Child care or learning pod arrangements in a workplace setting still need to follow all of the recommendations to promote the health and safety of children and staff. For school-age children enrolled in public school, virtual learning options should adhere to the education and safety requirements the schools are following from DOH and OSPI.
The number of participants allowed in a child care program, whether it’s a child care center or a temporary learning pod in a workplace or elsewhere, must follow the state’s child care guidelines referenced above as well as all child-to-staff ratios required by licensing. Do not base the number of children on the professional services requirements a business must follow for their employees.
How can employers keep employees safe while still being able to run a business?
It can be a lot to keep track of, so here are some tips:
• Look at the FAQ’s for Employers & Businesses
• Employees need to go or stay home if they have any symptoms, or if they have been in close contact with someone who has COVID.
• Cleaning and sanitizing efforts should be thorough and frequent in the workplace, particularly for high-touch surfaces and shared equipment.
• Face coverings need to be worn when employees are not alone in their own space (own space = office, vehicle, alone at a worksite, or in a cubicle distanced and separated from others by barriers).
• Maintain distance between people (employees and customers/clients) in the workplace. This may take the form of floor stickers to help people know where to stand or wait, or rearranging work areas so they are farther apart, or some other strategy that is appropriate for your workspace.
• Allow teleworking when appropriate. Consider remote or modified work options for high-risk workers.
• Review the recent presentation from Dr. Spitters for Economic Alliance Snohomish County.
• Check Safe Start information and business toolkits (links available here) for information and guidance specific to the industry you work in.
• Check out our Businesses and Organizations page for more resources.
The Public Health Essentials! blog highlights the work of the Snohomish Health District and shares health-related information and tips.