What are employers’ responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic?

'We're taking every complaint very seriously.'
Posted at 7:13 PM, Apr 10, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. — Numerous CBS 6 viewers have raised concerns over workplace conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The complaints included anxiety over proper social distancing among employees or the availability of personal protective equipment.

Others worried if their employers were obligated to notify them if a coworker tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Megan Healy, Chief Workforce Development Adviser to the Governor, said the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health program staff have handled more than 3,000 inquiries by phone and email from employees and employers related to the virus.

“We're taking every complaint very seriously. We're logging them and we're investigating them,” Healy explained. “The Virginia Department of Labor industry is really doing a fantastic job of calling every employer that we have a complaint on. It's a lot of people to walk through what are those guidelines to make sure that their workplace are safe.”

Virginia is considered a conformity state and implements standards set by the federal government and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The state collects federal dollars to fund local OSHA offices.

OSHA has issued health guidance regarding COVID-19, but it didn’t create new legal obligations for employers.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Act does require “employers to comply with safety and health standards and regulations promulgated by OSHA or by a state with an OSHA-approved state plan.”

Healy said state code does mandatethat the “duty of every employer to furnish to each of his employees safe employment and a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards.”

“We're really telling employers to do the right thing. That you need to look out for the safety and health of your workers,” Healy explained. “There's a liability to you knowing that there's potential hazards in your workplace and you don't do anything about it. That's where that can also be elevated to the level of the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry who can further investigate if you're putting employees at risk.”

Karen Michael, a Richmond lawyer and consultant specializing in employment law and human resources, recommended employees speak with their manager about concerns.

“The reality is everyone is so overloaded that the likelihood of OSHA jumping into your workplace and doing an inspection tomorrow is probably going to be pretty unlikely,” Michael stated. “I do encourage you to reach out to the Department of Health and to reach out to your employer. If you work for a national employer reach out to that national employer, as well.”

Federal laws don’t require an employer to notify workers if an employee tests positive for the novel coronavirus.

“Just like with any other medical condition the employer is not permitted by federal law to disclose that a co worker or a specific co worker has COVID-19,” Michael explained. “It would be okay for the employer to say ‘We're having some potential issues here with COVID-19 and these are the extra precautions we're going to take.’ But, specifically calling out individuals who have the illness that is not legal under federal law.”

Jennifer Rose, the cooperative programs director at Virginia Occupational Safety and Health, said they are also fielding complaints from employees regarding COVID-19.

“The lack of a reporting requirement to workers does not absolve the employer of their legal responsibility to comply with existing occupational safety and health laws and regulation in Virginia,” she said in a statement.

“We strongly recommend that employers adhere to social distancing recommendations, enhanced sanitizing practices on common surfaces, and applying the relevant workplace guidance from the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) Program, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),” Rose said.

Healy urged anyone with concerns in the workplace to file a complaint with OSHA online or call 800-321-6742. Complaints are then forwarded to regional offices.

You can also file a complaint with the state’s Department of Labor and Industry through their website.

Do you think an employer should be obligated to notify you if a coworker tests positive for COVID-19? Weigh in on the WTVR CBS 6 Facebook page.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for the most complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Precautions

Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.

Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.