What employers need to know to combat coronavirus

The coronavirus is continuing to spread rapidly, spurring employers such as Starbucks and PwC to implement workplace practices that protect their employees and offset growing fear and anxiety over the outbreak.

Since December, over 28,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported, and 565 people have died in China, which is at the epicenter of the outbreak. The disease has currently spread to 28 countries. In the U.S., there have been 293 cases reported and 11 people have tested positive for the virus in five states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There is a tension we’re seeing between being cautious and panicky,” says Joseph Deng, an employment law partner at Baker McKenzie law firm. “Companies want to communicate in a way that reassures the employee population while taking reasonable measures to protect employees.”

Employers like Facebook, Starbucks and WeWork, among others, have enacted a variety of preventative measures to handle the spread of the outbreak, including closing office locations in China and asking employees to self-quarantine in their homes for up to three weeks. Companies including accounting giant PwC and LG have placed mandatory travel bans to and from China.

“We are confident that the disease can be contained if everyone — including corporations doing business in China — is prudent and makes the safety of their employees their number one priority,” LG said in a statement.

Because of the changing nature of the pandemic and the speed in which it’s spreading, employers need to have essential protocols in place to protect employees and avoid misinformation. Often, employers feel unprepared but typically already have a blueprint for other disasters, Deng says.

“If you don’t have a pandemic policy, you as an employer will very likely have analogous policies that can be used in this situation,” Deng says. “When planning for this scenario, you need to ask what are the objective facts and what are your options.”

A critical first step to carrying out proper protocol is establishing a senior-level point person who can gather information, communicate across teams and report to upper management to implement the plan if necessary.

“You have to have someone who has the right touch and that can be subjective,” Deng says. “Find a person now who is the most knowledgeable and has the time and resources to gather information, assemble a cross functional team, and has access to a decision-making authority.”

Additionally, workplaces should focus on basic disease prevention measures, like promoting proper hygiene and encouraging workers to stay home if they’re not feeling well.

“If you feel you have symptoms, make prudent decisions. Do not travel or go into the workplace where you could spread the illness,” says Kathleen O’Driscoll, vice president of the Business Group on Health.

Taking these smaller, preventative measures early on will prepare both the employer and the employee in the event more extreme measures need to be taken. A more measured approach will make employees feel confident and protected.

“Think about how you want to be seen by your employees when this is over. You don’t want your employees to say, they didn’t tell me what to do or I had no support,” Deng says. “You’re not just preparing for an emergency. You’re working on how to come out with a better, stronger and more resilient workforce.”

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