Don’t ask employees if they have COVID-19, and other HR tips for employers

This illustration reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses.
The coronavirus.
(Alissa Eckert / CDC)

Can I ask an employee if he or she has COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus? Can I send a sick worker home and require a doctor’s note to return? Should I worry about staff getting the virus from the mail or a shipping container from China?

Those were among the top questions from a webcast recently coordinated by the Society for Human Resource Management to discuss how workplaces should handle thorny issues raised by the new coronavirus.

The short answers: No. Probably not. No.

Roughly 40,000 people joined the call, which featured staff experts from the HR group and Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants included not only HR professionals, but also CEOs, business owners and random people with questions — showing the hunger for guidance on how employers should navigate a global outbreak.

The CDC has moved beyond just trying to prevent the outbreak and is now focusing on mitigation. Businesses have a role to play in that process by taking smart steps to keep their employees healthy at work and making it easier for sick workers to stay home, Butler said.

“The goal of the mitigation is to not overwhelm society with millions of people becoming sick over a very short period of time,” Butler said on the call. “It is indeed very possible that this is a virus that is going to go around the world and infect a majority of people.”


The biggest focus of employers should be preventing person-to-person transmission, Butler said. The virus doesn’t seem to live much more than a day outside of the body even under the most favorable laboratory conditions, and if it were spreading through the mail or via shipping containers, that would likely have shown up in the epidemiological patterns, he said.

An employer can suggest an employee with visible illness leave the workplace, but should avoid asking too many specifics that might violate a worker’s rights, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Amber Clayton, director of the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Knowledge Center.

Employers can set specific guidelines for when a worker can return, such as how long it’s been since the last fever, she said.

“The CDC has also recommended that employers not require a doctor’s note at this time because we know that medical professionals are going to be extremely busy,” Clayton said.