Returning Employees to Work Amid the Coronavirus

By Bill Current, President & Founder of the Current Consulting Group

  • What are my Concerns with Returning Employees to Work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down and employers are anxious to turn things right-side-up again. But it will be challenging for many reasons, including the fact that during a national crisis studies show that substance abuse typically skyrockets, and the elevated levels of drug and alcohol abuse linger for months following the crisis. [i] [ii]

Add to that the fact that at least 38 million Americans have filed “first-time” unemployment claims since March, all of whom had jobs prior to the pandemic.[iii] We can probably safely expect most of these people to flood the job market as the economy comes back to life and employers display “Now Hiring” signs in their windows.

Employers must be prepared by focusing on establishing and, in some cases, re-establishing up-to-date drug testing programs along with employee and workplace protocols designed to safeguard the health and wellbeing of everyone who enters the workplace.

Why Drug Testing After Covid-19 Return to Work?

Drug Testing—Pre-employment drug testing will be more critical than, perhaps, ever before. Many job seekers in the coming months will be among those responsible for the dramatic increase in substance abuse during the pandemic.  This means that without a robust pre-employment screening program in place, there will be a greater chance of hiring current substance abusers. With the average cost to employers of approximately $7,000 a year per substance abusing employee,[iv] drug testing just makes good business sense.

Additionally, now is an ideal time to review and update company drug testing policies to ensure compliance with all applicable state and federal laws. In 2019, there were more than 450 bills introduced at the state level that, upon enactment, could have had a direct impact on workplace drug testing.  An out-of-date policy exposes a company to liability that could prove costly, especially in states with legal marijuana laws that place certain restrictions on how employers treat registered medical marijuana users who test positive for THC.

Ensure that all supervisors and managers have been properly trained to accurately identify the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and understand how to enforce the company’s policy. On-line training courses are an efficient and cost-effective way of making sure all required training is up to date and certified as complete.

What are my Concerns about Employee Health?

Employee Health Protocols—All 50 states have issued “reopen” guidelines that provide specific advice and, in some cases, requirements for employers to follow as workplaces open again. These guidelines include what should be done to ensure workers are healthy and free of a COVID-19 infection, and what to do when a worker has COVID-19 symptoms and/or tests positive and later wants to return to work.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), employees who have symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, or shortness of breath) should notify their supervisor and stay home.[v]  Additionally, such individuals should not return to work until they meet the following conditions: 1. At least 3 days (72 hours) have passed since recovery (resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications); 2. The individual has improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and 3. At least 7 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.[vi] (Different states may have their own specific return-to-work criteria.)

Regarding requiring a returning worker to provide a note from a doctor, the EEOC has stated: “Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the pandemic influenza were truly severe, they would be justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees.”[vii]

The bottom line: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated: “According to current CDC guidance, an individual who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it should not be in the workplace.”[viii]

How do I make my Workplace Safe?

Workplace Protocols—Most guidance for maintaining a clean workplace are based on common sense. For example, employers should plan to sanitize all common areas regularly throughout the day, provide hand sanitizer for employees and others who enter the workplace, require the use of masks (depending on the work environment), and allow for social distancing if possible.

Guidance for how to clean workplaces is being updated almost daily by myriad sources. Various federal government agencies are great sources of information for preparing and maintaining workplaces for COVID-19, including the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA),[ix]  the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC),[x] and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).[xi]

What about Testing m Employees for Covid-19? Should I Test for the Virus or the Antibodies?

Workplace COVID-19 Testing— The EEOC, the federal agency that regulates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which in turn places certain restrictions on medical exams and on inquiries that could be related to a disability, has determined that because COVID-19 is considered a “direct threat” under the ADA, the EEOC will permit employers to conduct COVID-19 tests, check employees’ temperature and send home workers who have COVID-19 or who are exhibiting the symptoms.

Regarding pre-employment COVID testing, the EEOC has stated: “An employer may screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same type of job. This ADA rule allowing post-offer (but not pre-offer) medical inquiries and exams applies to all applicants, whether or not the applicant has a disability.”[xii]

There are two primary types of COVID-19 tests—viral or molecular tests and antibody tests. A viral or molecular test reveals if a person has a live infection. An antibody test reveals if a person had a previous infection but no longer has a live infection. Most testing methods require either a blood, nasal or oral fluid sample and the collection should be conducted or be supervised by a trained professional technician.

Employers should defer to their respective state government for workplace COVID testing guidance.

What Should I Consider when Returning Employees to Work after Covid-19?

Conclusion— Employers want to restart their companies. Americans want to return to work but they also want to be safe. Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, employers and employees can work together to maintain safe, clean, and healthy work environments with up-to-date drug testing policies, COVID-related employee health protocols and clean workplace protocols, and COVID testing.

National Drug Screening offers solutions and guidance for returning employees to work with drug testing solutions and Covid-19 testing recommendations.

[i] Scientists Find a Connection Between 9/11 and Substance Abuse.

[ii] “New Yorkers Drank and Smoked More After 9/11.” WebMD.

[iii] Coronavirus Job Toll Hits 38 Million as 2.4 Million Americans File Unemployment Claims. Barron’s. May 21, 2020.

[iv] Borack, Jules I. and Mark D. Chapman. A Model for Determining an Optimal Drug Testing Policy. Navy Personnel Research & Development Center. San Diego, CA. 1996.

[v] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

[vi] How to discontinue home isolation. CDC.

[vii] Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). March 21, 2020.

[viii] EEOC.

[ix] Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. OSHA.

[x] Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). CDC.

[xi] Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act. EEOC.

[xii] EEOC.

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