Maybe you’ve already had employees return to work. Perhaps you’re still forming a plan to bring them back. Either way, you’ve likely already begun debating if you should be testing employees for COVID-19. To put it simply, there is no hard and fast rule that’s applicable to every workplace. However, there is government guidance that outlines specific scenarios where testing can be appropriate.
Before making any decision about testing, there are a number of factors to understand. Most importantly, what does the law say? According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are allowed to measure an employee’s body temperature. They can also require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19 and require a doctor’s note for that employee to return to work.
However, employee privacy must be maintained, so the information surrounding their illness must be confidential. At the same time, federal guidelines require employers to notify other employees who may have been put at risk. That means if someone from your workplace has tested positive, it’s necessary to disclose to workers that someone who had COVID-19 was in their presence without identifying that individual.
Furthermore, bear in mind the ADA specifies that any mandatory medical testing must be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Essentially, does an individual with the virus pose a direct threat to the health of your other employees? For most businesses, that answer is yes. If you do decide to test employees, note that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that employers cannot require antibody tests. Only viral tests to determine whether an employee is actively infected can be required.
When Might You Test Employees for COVID-19?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated their testing guidance to outline specific instances where you may wish to test employees for COVID-19. Before reading these scenarios, know that these are suggestions, representing a strong starting point for understanding what might be best for your business and workforce. They do not override state or local public health provisions or future direction from the EEOC. If you do decide to test, always seek out reputable medical guidance from public health authorities to utilize safe and accurate procedures.
Five Scenarios for Testing Employees
- Testing those with symptoms of COVID-19:If an employee exhibits known coronavirus symptoms such as a fever, cough, sore throat, etc., then separate that employee from others, send them home or to a healthcare facility, and have them tested. This decision may depend on the severity of their symptoms, but privacy must be maintained as best as possible.
- Testing asymptomatic individuals with recent exposure to COVID-19: If an employee has come into contact with another individual who had the coronavirus or was otherwise exposed to it, then that is also grounds for isolating and testing that employee. Since there may be a delay between exposure to the virus and it being detected, multiple tests may be necessary.
- Testing asymptomatic individuals without suspected exposure: Some workplace environments make it difficult to maintain social distancing because of the nature of the job. Other workplaces are in remote settings where medical treatment can be delayed. For several reasons, employers may decide to test employees at various intervals of time just to be safe.
- Testing to determine resolution of infection: If an employee has contracted COVID-19, then it is wise to test that employee before they return to work to ensure they are no longer contagious. For those thinking about how long employees with COVID-19 should be isolated, note that the CDC recently shortened timelines. Isolation can be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset as long as 24 hours have passed since the resolution of a fever.
- Testing for public health surveillance: Essentially, the fear of spreading infection between employees is enough to justify testing. As long as the results have a reasonable likelihood of benefiting workers, then employers may choose to test simply to improve public health and better understand disease trends in their workplace.
Will You Test Employees for COVID-19?
Guidance from government agencies and public health officials can and will evolve as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold. That means your decision to test employees should be revisited often to make sure it’s still the right call for your workforce. If you do decide to test, even if it’s just taking temperatures at the door, then you still need a plan of who does what and how the process and information will be documented. Lastly, make sure to clearly communicate your intentions with employees while reassuring them of their privacy. Ultimately, their safety is your top priority.