As workers return to work, “efforts have never been higher”

Companies across the country that are beginning to ease back to life face a new challenge: Keeping workers safe during coronavirus pandemic. They are implementing new protocols – temperature checks, social distancing, staggered schedules and contact tracking – but efforts are high without a vaccine or treatment in sight, experts said.

In fact, an outbreak of coronavirus can be devastating to both businesses and employees, whether they are working in a meat packing plant or in an office building.

“Companies are constantly facing existential threats. They are built to make decisions that will determine a company’s life or death,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of staffing firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. “Choices affecting the lives or death of their employees must now be made for the first time. The stakes have never been higher.”

Brian Kuhn, a data analyst in Roxbury, New Jersey, worked in an office of about 50 people until mid-March, when his company switched to teleworking. He has not yet been asked to return to the office and would not feel comfortable returning, even with precautions in place.

“I do not think any of it is preventing anyone from coming in who is asymptomatic and spreading it,” he said. “It poses a risk to each and every one of us that it just isn’t necessary at all … Prevention is the most important thing.”

Here are some questions and answers about what it will look like to return to work:

How do companies monitor employee health?

Companies are introducing a range of new tools and techniques to monitor the health of their employees.

The simplest method is to perform temperature control using no-touch thermometers. U.S. automakers, for example, require employees to fill out questionnaires daily to see if they have symptoms, measure their temperature before entering buildings, and require them to wear gloves, masks and face shields at work.

Although these measures may help prevent COVID-19 from spreading, they do not limit the risk to zero. Individuals may have high temperatures for reasons unrelated to coronavirus, while people who are infected may be asymptomatic but still spread the disease.

“Temperature checks do not necessarily correlate directly with COVID,” said Aiha Nguyen, a program director at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York, a nonprofit organization studying the cultural impact of technological change.

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Employer controlled contact tracking is another tool companies will use to reopen. Contact tracking is a method that breaks transmission chains by identifying people who may have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive person.

Digital apps that use Bluetooth or other signals to track people and alert users who have come in contact with infected people can supplement human contact tracking efforts. Accounting Consulting PricewaterhouseCoopers is testing a contract tracking app that it plans to use internally and also offer to business customers.

A company’s human resources department can work backwards to notify people who have been in the vicinity of an infected employee whose identity remains anonymous. In some cases, the data is sent to a remote server.

Contact tracking can be performed offline, where employees themselves report at the end of each working day who they have been in contact with. So if an employee tests positive, the company can contact the people they overlapped with.

Social distancing can be a challenge, but some employers get around it by shifting employee hours and limiting the number of people in the workplace. For example, Google plans to reopen some offices in early June, limiting office capacity to 10% to 15%.

Is it legal for companies to track employee health?

The rules vary from state to state, but in general it is legal to require employees to download tracking apps. Employers are required by the Work Environment Act to provide workers with “employment and a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that cause or may cause death or serious physical injury.”

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The U.S. Disability Act prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except in limited circumstances. The coronavirus qualifies as an exception because it has been considered a “direct threat” under the ADA guidelines by the US Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities. This means that employers can test employees whether it is job-related and in line with the company’s necessity.

Companies probably could not test an employee isolating themselves at home, but it becomes necessary when people need to be brought back to the office during a pandemic. They must still comply with the confidentiality rules set by the ADA, so temperature checks and other medical inquiries should be kept private. Health records should also be kept separate from employee staff files.

What about employees’ privacy rights?

Contact tracking involves the collection of sensitive data about individuals and comes with concerns about privacy. Healthcare providers may not disclose patients’ medical information to other entities under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However, employers and contact tracking apps are not covered by HIPPA, according to Michele Gilman, a privacy lawyer and fellow at Data & Society.

“One of the concerns here is that this will open the door for employers to collect huge amounts of health data about employees,” she said. “Many people believe that health data is protected by the HIPPA Statute. That law does not apply to employers. Employers have free control over the collection of this data and what they do with it.”

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PwC and other app manufacturers say they will not collect information about users. PwC says, for example, that no name or other personal information is attached to the data, and the data is deleted within 45 days. But without federal regulation, employers are left to monitor themselves.

What are the reopening guidelines?

Companies must adhere to each state’s reopening guidelines, most of which include different requirements for employee screening of employees, performing health checks, and social distancing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offer guidance for companies and employers on how to reopen, including recommendations to minimize potential risks to employees.

It has also released six “decision-making” documents on one page that use traffic signs and other graphics to tell organizations what to consider before reopening.

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