The recent news of the Coronavirus outbreak has caused a sizeable amount of fear and panic around the globe.  Addressing this novel virus requires that organizations plan but not panic.  Planning to take the proper precautions is essential as information about the virus develops. 

Coronavirus presents a possible a pandemic, which is a global epidemic.  With cases on the rise in the United States, American companies should review their sick leave policies and freshen up on their employment law obligations regarding what they can and cannot do when handling potential cases of Coronavirus in the workplace.   

Employers are legally responsible for keeping their workplaces safe for customers and employees.  Employers are equally responsible for complying with laws that protect the civil rights of their employees.  Below is information that will help American employers strike this careful balance.

  • Can I ask employees if they are experiencing symptoms of Coronavirus?

Yes, employers are permitted to make inquiries that are not related to a disability.  To be clear, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers can ask employees about an illness if it is not likely to elicit information about a disability.  As the coronavirus is not considered a disability, employers are permitted to ask employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the virus.

Furthermore, even if Coronavirus was considered a disability, under the ADA, if an employee’s illness or disability posed a direct threat to the workforce, an employer would be allowed to ask about the condition, assuming that the condition affected the employee’s ability to perform an essential job function. 

  • What measures should be in place to help my company prepare for a coronavirus outbreak in our workplace?

If your organization does experience an outbreak, it is important that procedures and personnel are in place to respond in an organized and efficient manner.  Companies should have a pandemic coordinator who can assist with responding to a potential outbreak in the workplace.  The coordinator should know how to respond to questions from employees, handle sick leave requests, and react to other tasks that will arise in response to an outbreak, such as addressing disruptions in workflow.   Additionally, an organization’s pandemic coordinator should be knowledgeable about employment laws regarding sick leave and disability discrimination. 

Employers should also review their sick leave policies to ensure that employees understand how to request sick leave.  Organizations should ensure that employees understand that they will not suffer retaliation for requesting sick leave. 

  • Can I send people home who are showing symptoms of the virus?

Yes.  The CDC has advised that people who experience symptoms of the virus should not come to work.   

  • What if I find out that an employee has Coronavirus?

All information collected from an employee about a medical condition must be kept confidential and maintained in a separate file, a part from the employee’s personnel file.  If an employee does contract coronavirus and the employer becomes aware of this, employers should not disclose the identity of the employee who has contracted the virus.  

Employers should alert clients and other employees who have come into contact with the infected employee to get tested for the virus and inform these susceptible individuals that they should get tested because the employer has knowledge that have come into contact with someone who has the virus. 

  • What are some best practices my company should adopt now to prepare for an outbreak?

Encourage all employees to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.  Provide hand sanitizer to all employees who are required to come into the workplace.  To the extent that your employees can work from home, employers should offer the tools that are necessary for employees to telework and encourage teleworking for eligible employees.  Finally, instruct employees to work from home if they are feeling sick.    

As we all work to protect the health of our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and families, employers can do their part by ensuring that employees act respectfully and responsibility as the world addresses the spread of coronavirus.   

**The information discussed in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. **


  • Ms. Childress is the managing attorney and founder of the Childress Firm PLLC, an employment law firm based in Washington, D.C. Ms. Childress holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government and African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law. Ms. Childress graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with High Distinction from the University of Virginia in 2007. After law school, Ms. Childress served as a federal judicial law clerk in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Ms. Childress has served as an associate at two global law firms and as an attorney for the United States Department of Justice. Ms. Childress represents clients in all aspects of employment law. Ms. Childress has litigated retaliation, discrimination, sexual harassment, non-competition, trade secret, unfair labor practice, and whistleblower cases before various tribunals. In addition to being an attorney, Ms. Childress is the creator and author of the Juris P. Prudence children's book collection, featuring fictional 11-year-old lawyer, Juris P. Prudence. Ms. Childress has held leadership roles in the National Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and the Washington Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. She has been the recipient of several honors, including the National Bar Association’s 2018 Young Lawyer of the Year Award, the Washington Bar Association’s 2017-2018 Young Lawyer of the Year Award, the National Bar Association’s 40 under 40 Best Advocates Award, the Kim Keenan Leadership & Advocacy Award, the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the National Bar Association’s Rising Star Award, and recognition by the National Black Lawyers as one of the top 100 black attorneys. Ms. Childress has been featured in numerous publications, including Forbes, Essence, the Huffington Post, Success, and Entrepreneur.