If COVID-19 comes into your workplace, what do you do next?

In workplaces that remain open, it is highly likely that the COVID-19 virus will make its way into your workplace. UE locals are encouraged to prepare in advance by negotiating with the employer a protocol for cleaning the workplace and limiting the exposure of other workers. Here are some additional things to keep in mind.

The Right to Information about Workers Who Are Sick

In order to protect and represent our members, we must know whether or not workers are being exposed to this virus while at work. The union has the right to know which employees have tested positive for COVID-19 (and other infectious diseases). Because of the contagious nature of this virus, this includes employees outside of our bargaining unit. The union needs to be able to judge independently which workers and sections of the workplace may have been impacted.

Do not allow the boss to claim that this information is protected health information that they are not allowed to share. Very few of our employers are “covered entities” under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The law is aimed at protecting health information held by health care providers (such as hospitals, doctors, or clinics), health plans, and health clearinghouses. (You can see our UE Steward on this topic here.)

Whether or not the employer is covered by HIPAA, the law allows for the disclosure of information that is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public. Sharing this information with the union is necessary for the union to represent our members’ needs, and it allows us to assist in preventing the spread of this disease and protecting our members. 

Workers Compensation

Disclosing positive COVID-19 cases will also allow the union to help members receive relevant benefits, such as workers’ compensation or disability benefits. If we have clear evidence that workers who test positive for COVID-19 have been exposed to this illness through another employee, then those secondary workers may be eligible for workers compensation benefits while they are out of work due to the illness. To collect benefits, workers may also need to be able to show they were not exposed to the disease elsewhere, such as at home.

Workers compensation differs from state to state, but it is likely to cover health care bills related to the worker’s illness as well as a substantial portion of wages while they are out sick. It may take some time for workers compensation benefits to be approved, so it is still worthwhile to use available sick leave benefits, such as those now available to many workers in new federal legislation. Because some of these benefits are new, it is not yet clear how these benefits will interact with each other. For example, once workers compensation benefits are made available to a worker, it may be the case that some portion of sick leave will need to be repaid or that workers compensation will be reduced by amounts already paid to the worker through sick leave. Nevertheless, it may be useful for members to pursue all available benefits, including workers compensation. 

Demands on the Boss

  • Negotiate protocols for when any employee tests positive. If possible, do this prior to a known positive case.
  • Demand that the boss report to the Union known positive cases of the virus immediately and on an ongoing basis.
  • Upon learning of a positive COVID-19 case in the workplace:
    • Demand that the worksite temporarily close for sanitation. The CDC recommends waiting at least 24 hours before sanitation. All workers should be paid and receive benefits during this closure. The union shall be provided a report from the cleaning service confirming the sanitation of the worksite and process used before the worksite re-opens.
      • Consider making a list of areas or tools that need to be cleaned that might not be apparent to a cleaning company that is unfamiliar with the worksite.
      • If the workers performing this special disinfection are members of our union, demand that they receive additional protective clothing and hazard pay for this work.
    • Workers who were sharing tools or a work area with or in close proximity to the employee known to have COVID-19 should be put on paid sick leave with benefits for at least 14 calendar days to see if they develop symptoms.
    • Workers who are members of high-risk populations for severe illness, including those over age 60, those who are immunocompromised, and those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, or heart disease, or who have relatives at home who are at high risk for severe illness, should have the right to take paid leave with benefits for at least 14 days to protect them from additional cases in the shop that are not yet identified.
    • In coordination with local health authorities, negotiate conditions for workers to return to work. According to the CDC, “The decision to stop home isolation should be made in consultation with your healthcare provider and state and local health departments. Local decisions depend on local circumstances.”
    • At a minimum, workers who were ill must be fever-free for at least 72 hours (without the use of medicine that reduces fevers).
    • Local authorities may or may not require negative tests to lift home isolation. Given the pressure on medical systems at the moment, we advocate that employees not be required to produce a written note from a healthcare provider, if that is acceptable to local authorities.
  • If the employer and/or union members want to put additional screening measures in place to try to prevent the virus from re-entering the workplace, such as taking workers’ temperatures prior to the start of shifts, demand that such screenings take place on work time.

Also make sure that the other protections outlined on our “Demands on Employers” page are in place.