Returning to Work

After weeks of state lockdown businesses across the country are eager to return to work. “When can my staff return to work” and “how can my staff safely return” are among the top questions being asked. Luckily the Center for Disease Control (CDC), has just released new guidelines. These guidelines will outline how business owners can determine which staff members are ready to return to work, based on each individual’s specific conditions.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), does typically prohibit employers from asking employees about their health. However, due to the unique circumstances caused by COVID-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has confirmed employers do have the right to request health information from workers during this outbreak. Specifically, employers may ask if employers are experiencing fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or a sore throat. Be sure (as always) to maintain all health information in confidential medical records, to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here are different scenarios and how the CDC recommends each is handled:

Unconfirmed COVID-19, With Illnesses

This is an employee who had experienced cough fever or similar symptoms but did not receive a confirmation that they have COVID-19. Once that employee is fully recovered from their illness (with or without medical intervention), they should be permitted to return to work only if:

  • The employee has had at least 3 days passed since they recovered. This means a minimum of 72 hours with no fever, without  the use of fever-reducing medicines (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc.)
  • Their respiratory symptoms have improved
  • At least 7 days have passed since the beginning of symptoms

Confirmed COVID-19, Without Illnesses

This is an employee who has been confirmed positive for COVID-19, by a medical professional but has not become ill. Once this employee has completed their isolation, they should be able to return to work under the following conditions:

  • At least 7 days have passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 Test
  • They have not become ill
  • For an additional 3 days after their required isolation, they limit contact with others (staying 6 feet away)
  • They wear a mask over their nose and mouth to limit the potential spreading of illness

Confirmed COVID-19, With Illness, Not Requiring Hospitalization

This is an employee who has been confirmed positive for COVID-19 by medical professionals and became mildly or moderately ill due to the virus. These employees would have been required to self-isolate and medicated at home, and not been admitted to the hospital. They should be permitted to return to work only if:

  • The employee has had at least 3 days passed since they recovered. This means a minimum of 72 hours with no fever, without  the use of fever-reducing medicines (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc.)
  • Their respiratory symptoms have improved
  • No continuing illness; currently showing no symptoms
  • The employee has had TWO negative COVID-19 tests, administered by a medical professional, that were at least 24 hours apart.

Confirmed COVID-19, With Illness, Requiring Hospitalization

This is an employee who has been confirmed positive for COVID-19 by medical professionals and became ill enough to require hospitalization due to the virus. Due to the nature of the disease, these who have been infected requiring hospitalization are at higher risk of shedding (dispersing respiratory secretions) and spreading the infection. Therefore the CDC recommends rigorous testing before these employees return to work, as they may experience longer periods of viral detection compared to those with mild or moderate symptoms.

The CDC states “ Severely immunocompromised patients (e.g., medical treatment with immunosuppressive drugs, bone marrow or solid organ transplant recipients, inherited immunodeficiency, poorly controlled HIV) may also have longer periods of SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection and prolonged shedding of infectious recovery.”

For those hospitalized in other high-risk categories, their contagion may last longer than others. They warn that “placing a patient in a setting where they will have close contact with individuals at risk for severe disease warrants a conservative approach.” To accomplish this a test-based strategy is recommended. Employees who fall into this category should discuss a return to work plan with their personal healthcare provider to best assess their individual situation.

Additional Recommendations

By following these guidelines, the CDC hopes to prevent most instances of secondary spread. The risk of transmitting the illness is significantly less than during the illness. The CDC further provides suggestions on more stringent return to work criteria in situations where “higher threshold to prevent transmission is warranted” such as:

  • Longer time after recovery before an employee returns to work and/or,
  • returning employees are tested for COVID-19, and then adhering to guideline criteria before allowing them to return.
  • Regulations specific to healthcare workers can be found here:

Businesses are now able to take employees’ temperature before they enter the building, but not all COVID-19 patients experience fever. Employers should require any staff member who becomes ill during the day to return home immediately. Distancing measures should be maintained as much as possible. Further maintaining clean surfaces and wearing face masks or other PPE, is recommended.

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