As people return to working in person, the chances of getting exposed to COVID-19 on the job unfortunately go up, too.
That worries us. In a September survey of U.S. workers, 42% of respondents said they were worried about returning to in-person work due to fears of contracting COVID-19 or exposing their families to the disease.
That’s why knowing what your company will do if a co-worker tests positive for COVID is so important ― not only for stopping the spread of the coronavirus but also for allaying concerns.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of confusion around what should happen, what employers are allowed to share, and what you can rightfully ask.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of worker safety, issued an emergency temporary standard last Thursday that forces covered private employers to immediately remove from the workplace any employee who receives a positive COVID-19 test, regardless of vaccination status, until that person tests negative or meets isolation requirements. This rule does not, however, require businesses to do any contact tracing, such as reaching out to employees who may have been exposed to that person.
But workers have a right to a safe workplace, and some have already sued over their employers keeping them in the dark about COVID cases, citing gross negligence. Companies that care will notify employees anyway, even though OSHA doesn’t require it.
Travis Vance, an employment lawyer with the firm Fisher Phillips who is based in North Carolina and works on the firm’s COVID-19 task force, estimates he’s worked with nearly a thousand companies on how to notify staff about coronavirus exposures.
“The number one type of [COVID-related] lawsuits is ‘My employer knew there was a COVID-19 case in the workplace and didn’t tell me about it,’” Vance said.
“If you are in a workplace and you have a [COVID-19] case, everyone needs to be aware that there was a case.”
Ideally, you would not even need to ask questions of your employer about protocols. “It should be stated up front: ‘Should we have a case, this is what we are going to do,’” said Michael Van Dyke, an industrial hygienist who studies workplace exposure assessments at the Colorado School of Public Health.
But of course, that’s not always the case. Here are the best practices businesses should follow and what to advocate for if your employer is less than forthcoming:
Management can’t reveal who exposed you to COVID-19 but can give information about timing and symptoms.
Because the Americans With Disabilities Act requires an employer to maintain the confidentiality of employees’ medical information, including any COVID-19 diagnosis or treatment, your company cannot disclose the names of those who got sick with COVID-19 when workplace exposure happens.
One of the big myths people believe, said Phillip Russell, an employment lawyer for Ogletree Deakins in Tampa, Florida, is that they can’t ask about or share medical information at work because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). But that only applies to specific worksites like medical facilities or to third-party administrators with medical information, not a typical private employer, he said.
“The folks that have handled it the worst way have been those that have bought into the myth that HIPAA prohibits an employer from talking about medical issues in the workplace. It does no such thing,” Russell said. “They don’t understand that not only can they ask medical questions; they should be asking medical questions.”
Russell added that while employers shouldn’t disclose anyone’s personal health information, they can share enough information about coronavirus exposure for others to make informed choices.
Employers are also permitted to ask those who test positive questions about the symptoms and timing of their illness and relay what they find out to other employees to help them assess their risk. “You can talk about timeframes, you can talk about symptoms, you can talk about where they worked, but it’s best not to name the person,” Russell said.
Vance said it’s possible in some cases for the person with COVID-19 to waive their right to confidentiality so that conversations with potentially exposed co-workers can be more frank and detailed, but that’s up to the individual.
It’s critical to find out when your colleague felt symptoms and how close they were to you.
Van Dyke said key questions for assessing your level of risk are: When was I around this person? How long was I around this person? How close was I? Were we both wearing masks, and which kind?
As the CDC notes, “An infected person can spread SARS-CoV-2 starting from two days before they have any symptoms.” That means when an employee starts feeling symptoms, it’s key to trace who interacted with them on previous days.
In its recommendations for businesses, the CDC said it is best for unvaccinated close contacts ― those who were “within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period” ― to quarantine for 14 days if they are unvaccinated, telework if possible and self-monitor for symptoms and warning signs. Van Dyke noted that “cumulative total” means that you could have closely interacted with your infected co-worker for three minutes at a time, five times in one day.
Those who are exposed but are fully vaccinated don’t have to quarantine, but should get tested 5-7 days after exposure, even if they don’t have symptoms, and should wear a mask indoors for the next two weeks or until they get a negative result, the CDC said.
“It would always be helpful to have more information, but just knowing you are a ‘close contact’ really lays out the actions you need to take next,” Van Dyke said.
“You can talk about timeframes, you can talk about symptoms, you can talk about where they worked, but it’s best not to name the person.”
Vance said that the companies that minimize the spread of COVID-19 best follow a “6-15-48” exposure test based on the CDC guidelines: They remove infected employees from the workplace, then clean and disinfect the worksite according to CDC guidelines. Then the company interviews the affected person to identify others who worked within 6 feet of them, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the onset of their symptoms. These employees are promptly notified and quarantined if they are not fully vaccinated, he said.
“In the long-term, 6-15-48 really saves you several other COVID cases, because you’ve got the close contacts out of the workplace,” Vance said.
Speedy notification is also critical. Dena Bravata, chief medical officer for the health care navigation platform Castlight, said that in her experience at work and with clients, “It’s all hands on deck. ... We’ve been very fortunate to not have much workplace exposure, but when we do, we notify people immediately. Immediately is within hours of us learning about it.”
It’s reasonable to be informed there was a COVID-19 exposure at work, even if you weren’t a close contact.
Vance said one of the biggest mistakes he sees employers make is not notifying staff who weren’t close contacts, but did work in the same hallway or share a breakroom.
“Those are the folks that are going to end up filing some sort of claim or calling OSHA because they feel like they’re not being communicated with,” he said.
Van Dyke sees it as reasonable for close contacts to be given more information, and for everyone else to be aware there is a COVID-19 case.
“If you are in a workplace and you have a [COVID-19] case, everyone needs to be aware that there was a case,” he said. “Those people who are close contacts need more information to really assess their own risk, and with the help of the employer, to determine what to do.”
Employers should cover the cost of related testing.
It’s a best practice for employers to pay for the COVID tests of those who were exposed to the virus on the job, and it may be an obligation under certain state laws and the ADA.
“It’s not the employee’s fault that they were exposed, so I definitely think the employer should pay for it in that situation,” Vance said.
Van Dyke agreed: “If you are exposed at work and the test costs money, the employer should cover the cost of that test,” he said. “At this point in the pandemic, there should be easy testing available.”
If this isn’t offered, feel empowered to ask for it.