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How to prepare for coronavirus in the workplace

Do you have enough sick days? How can you protect yourself if you have to be in the office?
Hand Sanitizer
If you have to go into the office, how can you minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19?Getty Images stock

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By Callie Patteson and Robin Kawakami

The number of novel coronavirus cases is rising in the United States, making some wonder: Are elbow bumps and "footshakes" replacing handshakes? And how might the outbreak impact the workplace?

While cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a member of the coronavirus family, are currently being treated in multiple states, some companies have proactively asked employees to start working from home. Twitter made it mandatory for employees in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea to work remotely and is "strongly encouraging" all of its employees worldwide to not come into work. JP Morgan is currently asking 10% of staff to work from home while they test a contingency plan for closing domestic offices.

Amazon — whose Seattle headquarters has become ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. — is asking its Seattle and nearby Bellevue, Washington, employees to stay home through the end of the month, if they can, after one worker tested positive for the coronavirus. And after discovering that one of its employees may have been exposed to COVID-19, Vice Media Group asked some of its employees to work from home.

However, not every office has a contingency plan in place and not everyone can work from home. So TODAY gathered the biggest questions you or your employer might have about dealing with coronavirus in the workplace.

When should I stay home from work?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that employees with "symptoms of acute respiratory illness" stay home. If you or another employee has a fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, it's best to notify your manager and stay home.

Professor Amy Quarton, an associate instructor in the organizational leadership department at Maryville University in Saint Louis, told TODAY that only a subset of the workforce can telecommute.

She cautioned about the ways different types of employees may be treated in the workforce. "White-collar workers usually can take advantage of telecommuting," she told TODAY by phone. "What kind of message does that send to your employees when you allow the higher paid, higher status workers to work from home but you require the lower paid, lower status workers to come in?"

Quarton suggests that employers give extra recognition, thank-you's, food or some other perk to employees who are unable to work from home. Otherwise, it might send the wrong message when only certain employees can work from home.

How can I protect myself at work? Should I wear a mask?

There is no recommendation to wear a face mask to prevent contracting COVID-19. Better ways to protect yourself and others include:

  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (cough or sneeze into your elbow if a tissue is not available — not into your hands)
  • Not touching your face

What should I do if I don't have enough sick days?

"From a public health perspective, there is a danger in people who think they will be penalized if they self-report risk and self-quarantine," said Jeffrey Levin-Scherz, an assistant professor in the department of health policy and management at Harvard University. "If people think they will be penalized, they are much more likely to come to work when they're a risk."

Levin-Scherz advises that protecting workers in the workplace is one of the first things an employer should do when preparing for the coronavirus outbreak. You don't want to accidentally encourage people to come into work when they might be a risk to others. However, he also acknowledged that not all employers may be in a financial spot to provide their employees with more paid time out of the office.

If you or a family member is sick, talk with your manager about your exposure. The CDC recommends employers make sick-leave policies flexible and consistent with public health guidance. Hopefully, you and your office can devise a plan to make up time on a later date, potentially take it out of vacation time or work from home.

Partners at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, an international law firm, recommend employers consider a temporary program of unlimited sick leave. “There’s PR considerations," said Aaron Goldstein, a partner at the firm, during a recent webinar addressing employment law and the novel coronavirus. "An employer who’s perceived as taking advantage, or being hardhearted, in the midst of a crisis could pay a price after the crisis subsides. And allowing a temporary program of unlimited sick leave could really have some longterm morale benefits for your workforce.”

And new legislation could make emergency paid sick leave a reality for workers in the U.S. On March 6, Democrats in the House of Representatives and Senate introduced legislation that would require employers to immediately provide workers 14 additional days as part of their paid sick leave in light of a public health emergency. The legislation would additionally mandate employers to left workers accrue seven days of paid sick leave. President Donald Trump has also talked about a possible payroll tax cut and getting help for hourly wage earners.

How can I make my workplace a safe environment for my employees?

If you're an employer, the best way to make the workplace a safe environment is to make it a clean environment — and one without infected people. The CDC advises routine environmental cleaning. This includes cleaning workstations, countertops and doorknobs. Another way is to provide employees with disposable disinfectant wipes and encourage them to clean commonly used surfaces after they use them.

Levin-Scherz recommends that employers exclude sick or potentially contagious employees from others. In fact, employers can require workers who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms to go home.

Social distancing can also help prevent spreading the disease and having to quarantine the entire office.

“It’s easier to spread a disease like this if people are densely packed together," said Goldstein. "A simple scheduling move by taking and having only every other cube in a cubicle environment populated could make a difference and would also show your employees that you are, in fact, taking steps.”

Technology can also facilitate social distancing. "Let more workers work remotely," Levin-Scherz told TODAY. "Have virtual meetings; there are a lot of opportunities to not have people come together and still get work done."

The importance of social distancing during an outbreak is emphasized in a chart that is making the rounds on social media. It's adapted from the CDC's chart on nonpharmaceutical measures for pandemic influenza.

One of the worst things an employer can do is adopt a wait-and-see approach. "When I hear 'wait and see,' to me, that’s the opposite," said Quarton. "Wait and see for what? Someone gets sick and you’re scrambling around at the last minute to throw together a policy to try and fix it."

Instead, she advises that employers come up with a plan on their own terms. "You articulate it; you communicate it," she said. "There will be other things that will happen in the future, whether it's five years, 10 years, 15 — and it may not be a disease outbreak, it may be a natural disaster or a week of terrible weather."

She added, "You don't want to implement a telecommuting program overnight." That will lead to mass confusion, chaos, people are panicking. "They have questions: What do I do with my kids? Do is still get paid? What about my benefits?"

What if my workplace doesn't have a contingency plan?

Some offices are proactively dividing up their employees. JP Morgan Chase is sending hundreds of its traders and salespeople in New York and London to backup locations. “Dividing our workforce into different locations improves our ability to serve clients continuously while reducing the health risks associated with physical contact should a case arise,” executives said in a memo.

Splitting up staff is a move that many banks and financial institutions — including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America — are adopting. And some companies are asking employees to avoid public transportation whenever possible.

But what if your line of work doesn't allow for telecommuting, or what if you work for a company that's not taking any proactive measures? There are some steps you can take as an individual to minimize risk:

  • Practice proper hand hygiene: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after using the restroom, before eating and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. And don't touch your face.
  • Adopt social-distancing measures: Reduce in-person meetings whenever possible; instead, set up conference calls or use instant messaging programs like Slack. If you must interview candidates, try videoconferencing. And think about personal space, too. Microsoft told workers who must still come into the office to "stay 6 feet/1.8 meters away from others."
  • Wipe down your space and don't let others use your desk: Keep disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol around when you can't wash your hands. If you're in an open office and plan to be away from your workspace for a while, ask co-workers to refrain from using your desk or office while you're away.
  • Get nosy: Did a colleague just come back from Seattle or a large conference? Perhaps it's best to keep your distance. Several colleges are asking employees and students to register their personal travel plans. And just because someone doesn't appear to be sick doesn't mean he or she isn't infected. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University showed that the median incubation period of the virus is 5.1 days.
  • Make sure you have the right equipment and software to work remotely, and run a test at home: Don't wait for an actual emergency to prepare. If you have a laptop, work with your company's IT department to make sure you're set up to easily work from home and that you can access all the programs you use in a typical workday. And if your company doesn't have a plan for cross-training employees or dealing with a skeleton staff/scheduling, it's worth bringing that up with your manager.
  • Avoid communal eating opportunities: Does your workplace have Muffin Mondays or Taco Tuesdays? Or are cupcakes and bags of chips always around? Now might be a good time to bring your own snacks to work.

Should I cancel any upcoming work trips?

If you are scheduled to travel overseas for business, you may need to rebook your trip. The U.S. Department of State recommends avoiding travel to China, placing the country at a level 4 warning, its most severe travel advisory. The CDC also recommends avoiding all nonessential travel to China, Italy, Iran and South Korea.

Regardless of your travel plans, be sure to exercise the same hand hygiene practices wherever you are. That means proper hand-washing, avoiding close contact with sick people, staying home when sick, avoiding touching your face and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces with a household cleaning spray or wipes.

And yes, it even means swapping out handshakes for elbow bumps, according to Levin-Scherz.

"(Employees) should be monitoring themselves carefully and if they feel a cold coming on, if they have a sore throat, if they're coughing, if their nose is runnier than usual, if they have a fever," he said, "they shouldn't go to work."

—Rhania Kamel contributed to this article.