Question: One of our employees went on vacation to Thailand and is scheduled to return to work in a couple of days. We don’t know whether her itinerary included any connections through China, but we’re concerned she could have been exposed to the coronavirus. Can we tell her not to come to work for a while?
Answer: You should ask her where she traveled and base any work restrictions on the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for those countries. The CDC has posted interim guidance for businesses and employers (Feb. 2020). It includes the following advice for employees: “Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which you will travel. Specific travel information for travelers going to and returning from China, and information for aircrew, can be found … on the CDC website.”
Currently the Traveler’s Health Notices web page for Thailand says that some coronavirus cases have appeared there but the CDC doesn’t have any recommendations for avoiding travel in that country. In contrast, the Traveler’s Health Notices web page for China says to avoid nonessential travel there. The CDC states, “On arrival to the United States, travelers from China will undergo health screening. Travelers with signs and symptoms of illness (fever, cough, or difficulty breathing) will have an additional health assessment. Travelers who have been in China during the past 14 days, including US citizens or residents and others who are allowed to enter the US, will be required to enter the US through specific airports and participate in monitoring by health officials until 14 days after they left China. Some people may have their movement restricted or be asked to limit their contact with others until the 14-day period has ended.”
If the employee tells you that her itinerary included any time in China, including a flight connection, then you may rely on the CDC guidance and tell her to stay away from the workplace until she is free of symptoms for 14 days after passing through China. Depending on the job, you may allow the employee to work from home. If the employee is nonexempt (i.e., eligible for overtime), then you don’t have to pay for any time not worked, but you should allow the employee to use accrued paid sick leave, vacation, or other paid time off if requested. Don’t mandate the use of paid leave, though, since you’re forcing the time off. If the employee is exempt and you prevent her from working for part of a workweek but she works during another part of the workweek, you must pay her full salary for the workweek.
If the employee doesn’t exhibit any symptoms, the time off really cannot be counted as leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or similar state laws. You may be able to require a fitness-for-duty note from the employee before she physically returns to the workplace, but talk with your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney before doing so or taking any other actions. As a matter of ongoing worker protections, you should also encourage all of your workers to practice good hygiene, including washing their hands thoroughly with soap and hot water. The CDC’s interim guidance for businesses and employers includes specific recommendations for workplace hygiene, along with links to its web pages on coughing and sneezing etiquette and its clean hands campaign. Also, see our Legal Guide, Infectious Diseases in the Workplace.