What Will It Be Like To Work During A Coronavirus Outbreak?

Prepare your work-from-home kits now and ask about leave policies.
Employees should expect more "social distancing" to occur during a COVID-19 outbreak.
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Employees should expect more "social distancing" to occur during a COVID-19 outbreak.

In the event of a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., here’s what could happen: Work-from-home policies become the norm. People who are coughing or short of breath get separated from healthy employees and sent home immediately. More workers stop showing up to work as they care for ill family members. Business travel restrictions and bans go into effect, and employees become cross-trained so that even if essential staff are absent, work goes on. Cleaning doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls and desks becomes routine after each use.

These are just some of the scenarios that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines in its interim guidance for businesses and employers responding to a coronavirus outbreak. And they are becoming more of a reality as the spread of COVID-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019) appears inevitable in the U.S.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at a Wednesday briefing. If the virus spreads into the community, she said, the response should include “social distancing” tactics like having employees work from home and replacing in-person meetings with video calls.

Now is the time to prepare for how your work life would change.

The more that you prepare for the particulars of your job, or whatever field you’re in, the less you’ll panic when that moment comes. You will have thought through the continuity of operations,” said Juliette Kayyem, the faculty chair of the global health and security project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“The best-case scenario is that people don’t go from zero to panic immediately,” Kayyem said.

Here’s how your work day could change during a coronavirus outbreak, and how you should prepare now.

Expect more social distancing to happen. And if your workplace has no protection plan yet, ask for one.

Not everything is known yet about all the ways this coronavirus spreads, but it is transmissible person-to-person and has made its way out of China, where it is believed to have originated. Two California women have been confirmed to have the virus without being exposed to a known patient and without having relevant travel history.

Currently, there’s no vaccine and no medications to treat COVID-19. As the outbreak spreads across Europe, businesses with European operations like Nestlé, L’Oreal and Unilever are restricting or banning business travel.

In the U.S., companies are already nixing mass gatherings in an attempt to fend off an outbreak. On Thursday, Facebook said it was canceling its global developer’s conference in May in San Jose, California, “to prioritize the health and safety” of its participants.

Kayyem said if social distancing becomes the norm in an outbreak, employees should think about what they need to do their job remotely, or demand to know about the alternatives if working remotely is not an option.

For workers who can’t telecommute, like those in the supply chain, Kayyem said “the advice is more what are they demanding of their employers ... either ‘What are alternatives to those services for some period of time?’ ― which I think we are inevitably going to come to at some stage ― or ‘What sort of personal protective equipment will be made available to them?’ Treat them like first responders.”

For example, Kayyem said, delivery workers could be released from having to wait for signatures so that person-to-person contact is all but eliminated from a delivery.

Prepare for your working-from-home scenarios now.

Kayyem recommends planning for “72 on you” — that is, how many hours you should be prepared to use only your own supplies. This might be necessary if officials advise people to limit contact to those already in their homes. It means having at least three days’ worth of supplies, including medications, nonperishable pantry staples and one gallon of water per person per day. That’s what Kayyem has prepared for her family.

In these stuck-at-home scenarios, consider how you will work and handle childcare if schools are closed, Kayyem said. (On Thursday, Japan’s prime minister called for shutting down all of the nation’s schools for a month in response to the country’s COVID-19 cases.)

“Communication is absolutely key right now with family members, employers, kids, to prepare them that there might be some disruption to life,” Kayyem said.

When working from home is not an option, be strategic about interactions in shared spaces.

During an outbreak, if you have to interact with the public or colleagues or commute on mass transit for your job, be strategic — as you already should be — about avoiding germ transmission in shared spaces.

Erin Sorrell, an assistant research professor in Georgetown University’s department of microbiology and immunology, said the same methods for avoiding general infection apply here: “Trying not to touch your face while you are commuting, and if you are able to have hand sanitizer or some type of detergent on you that you can carry and use during your transportation, that’s even better.

“I am checking CDC’s website daily for what they are recommending,” Sorrell said of her own preparations for a possible outbreak. “I am constantly washing my hands and I’m always trying to think about being aware of my surroundings. So if I’m on the bus and there is someone who might be coughing or sneezing, I would not sit right next to them. I would definitely do that, regardless of the coronavirus outbreak.”

Anywhere large groups of coworkers are working together, Sorrell recommends there be more access to hand sanitizers and routine environmental cleaning with soap-based and alcohol-based cleaners. “The virus is sensitive to detergents,” she said. “Just having a routine cleaning of shared surfaces, desktop spaces, meeting rooms, etc. ... That would be important.”

“A disaster hits a community as it is, not what you wanted it to be.”

Should you wear a face mask at work during an outbreak?

Sorrell said that from a public health perspective, “There is really no debate on the efficacy of a face mask” for preventing COVID-19.

“A typical surgical mask that you see a lot of people wearing out in the public, those are not going to prevent you from being infected,” she said. “When people wear them and they’re healthy, it’s giving almost a false sense of security that they’re preventing any type of exposure.”

Instead, face masks are important for those who are already sick, and Sorrell said that the supply for face masks should be prioritized for health care workers and those who are immunocompromised. “The idea is that that face mask protects your cough and sneeze from going out and traveling as effectively as possible. It’s a barrier, a shield for those who are already infected,” she said. If you’re at home sick and living with others who are healthy, that’s a scenario in which a face mask might also be wanted.

In a best-case scenario, flexible paid leave would be available for all during outbreak. But it’s not.

On Wednesday, the Society For Human Resource Management issued a recommendation for employers: “First, send symptomatic employees home until they produce documentation from a medical professional that they are able to return to work.”

This advice goes against what the CDC recommends, which is to not require employees to get a health care provider’s note because doing so can overload doctors and nurses who are going to be busy enough during an outbreak.

The CDC also says employers should maintain flexible leave policies for employees in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. But for employees without paid sick leave, going home means not earning income.

The United States currently has no federal law mandating paid sick leave for all workers, so access to this benefit is unequally distributed. While 87 percent of private-sector employees with the highest wages have access to paid sick leave, lower-paid workers who are the least able to absorb the financial hit of not working do not, according to an Economy Policy Institute analysis.

The group that is least likely to earn sick leave is also more likely to get sick in the event of a disease outbreak. Workers with high-frequency interaction with the public, like food service and delivery workers, have a higher chance of exposure to a pandemic than office workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a 2014 report.

“A disaster hits a community as it is, not what you wanted it to be,” Kayyem said. “All of the gaps we have today in terms of health care and leave policy will not get solved because of a pandemic, they will be exacerbated for the reasons we know, because people often don’t have alternatives.”

Kayyem said the nation’s labor laws are not prepared to handle a coronavirus outbreak with no definite end. In a hurricane, she said, there is a shared understanding of what you are responding to, and communities are focused on recovering. But with a COVID-19 outbreak, it is “different. It’s biological. We don’t know what recovery looks like, we don’t know how long we are going to be out for. I don’t think we have the doctrine for something like this right now.”

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