Practical Guidance for Employers Handling the Coronavirus

We know there is a lot of information (and misinformation) out there about the coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, and how to handle it in the workplace. Our goal is to provide you with guidance on how to handle this as an employer — practical solutions for the impact the coronavirus may have on your business. 

We will continue to update this guidance as news changes, and in response to questions we receive from our members. Please bookmark this page to keep up-to-date on the latest HR guidance.

Table of Contents:

If an employee is sick, can I send him/her home?
If I close my office and my employees are not working, I can’t afford to pay everyone’s full salaries. Can I pay them a reduced rate?
State and Locally Specific Guidance
What should I do now to be prepared for or to prevent infection at the office?
What should I do if an employee requests time off because s/he thinks they may have been exposed to the virus or are feeling sick with a fever?
My employee has a compromised immune system and does not want to work.
I have an employee returning from travel to an affected area, what should I do?
Can I make an employee take a two-week leave of absence?
What if the office needs to close?
What about my patients / clients / customers / vendors?


March 4, 2020 Updates

If an employee is sick, can I send him/her home?

If an employee is objectively showing signs of being sick – flu symptoms, bad cold symptoms, coronavirus symptoms, or other – you are able to send them home so that they don’t pose a health risk to the rest of your team or other visitors to the office. Most employers encourage their teams to stay home if they are unwell, but don’t necessarily require it unless it appears to be a severe illness. With heightened health concerns right now, it’s OK to become much more strict about this. 

Most employers also have some type of policy in their employee handbook about the employee getting a doctor’s note releasing them to work if they’ve been out for a certain amount of time. If your state, city, or county has a mandated sick leave rule, it likely has a restriction about when you can ask for a doctor’s note so be sure to follow those laws. 

You can’t require that an employee disclose their medical diagnosis to you, but you can require that they have a healthcare provider confirm in writing that they are able to return to work, or confirming that they are unable to work for a period of time, or that they have specific work restrictions. We recommend getting that documentation if you have concerns about someone’s health. 

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If I close my office and my employees are not working, I can’t afford to pay everyone’s full salaries. Can I pay them a reduced rate?

We had a CEDR member pose this question, and we think it’s a great idea. Having to shut down your business for a period of time is a financial strain for you, but it’s also a very serious financial issue for your staff who has to pay their rent, buy food, and support their families. It would be amazing if you could continue to pay everyone’s full salaries during an office closure, but we know that isn’t feasible for many companies particularly if it’s an extended period of time. 

Since the employees are not actually working, you aren’t obligated to pay wages so the normal rules about rates of pay don’t apply. You could pay everyone for their normal number of workweek hours but at a reduced rate of pay. Alternatively, you could issue a set amount to everyone as a per diem or stipend to help them pay their bills. 

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Several state and county government agencies have been releasing official guidance. Here are some detailed resources that have come to our attention:

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March 3, 2020


We recommend you set up two types of communication plans to handle Coronavirus issues as they arise. One type is for what happens if lots of your employees end up home, whether working or sick, and the other one is to deal with the day-to-day issue of the saga which is being created by this unique pandemic.

In this guidance we frequently mention the option of having employees work from home. We  understand that the vast majority of our members and readers provide face to face services. All of the talk about sending people home to work is not going to work for many employers. Ultimately, you may have to find a balance and come up with what works best for your business and team. Not everyone will get sick. Of those who may get sick, not all will get sick at the same time.

What should I do now to be prepared for or to prevent infection at the office?

We highly recommend reviewing the CDC’s guidance for employers. The CDC has been firmly established as a go-to reference for coronavirus preparation and facts. OSHA guidelines are also very informative for employers on this issue, particularly in the healthcare field.

Here are some practical steps you can take now to prevent an infection in the workplace:

  • Remind all employees to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, and to cover their nose with the inside of their elbow when they sneeze. The CDC has educational materials about basic safeguards that may want to distribute or hang up in the office.
  • Make sure each employee has hand sanitizer readily available, and remind them to actually use it!
  • Make sure each employee has disinfectant wipes easily available so they can clean their workstation at the end of each day (keyboard, phone headsets, light switches, etc.) You may also want to add regular wipe downs of things like doors and railings as a part of your routine.
  • Make sure employees are strictly following all clinical sanitation/cleaning protocols in accordance with existing OSHA standards. We recommend checking for any updates from OSHA on a regular basis.
  • Check in with janitorial staff about what they clean to fill in any gaps as needed, e.g. sanitizing door knobs and push plates on doors, cleaning the chairs in the waiting room, etc.

These may seem like you’re simply covering the basics, but for now reinforcing healthy measures is the best thing you can do.

Encourage your team to use their sick days as a strategic and preventive measure.

We know that having even one employee out of the office can put a strain on the rest of the team. But coming into work sick can result in the rest of your staff, and even your patients/customers, getting sick as well. So while we’re in the flu season and facing the unknowns of the coronavirus, you may want to err on the safe side and encourage staff to stay home if they are getting sick, have come into contact with someone with the virus, or need to care for a sick family member.

You may have team members who try to work through their illness because they feel guilty about taking time off, or more likely, because they simply can’t afford to take unpaid days off. Be supportive of their need to take care of themselves and their families. We are monitoring to see if states will offer emergency unemployment benefits to employees affected by mandatory absences due to this illness. In the recent past, where large natural disasters have occurred, some states have enacted emergency funding for those affected.

Contingency planning

Unfortunately, despite any preventative measures you take you could still end up with a lot of sick staff or even having to shut down the office. Do yourself a favor and take some time now to plan for how you would handle that should it come up. Perhaps put together a flow chart that identifies the essential functions of each position and who would take over those functions should the primary person need to stay at home and can’t work.

If you’re thinking this is extreme, keep in mind that you never know what might happen to your business – fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, public health issues, and more are all real things that happen to real businesses. Every business owner should have some form of a contingency plan in place so that you’re not caught completely unprepared. Your team will be looking to you for answers, and your patients and customers will be wanting to know what you’re doing.

Here are some factors to consider when creating a contingency plan for an outbreak where the office has to close or go with limited staff:

  • Determine essential items that need to get done, even if you are short staffed or the business is shut down. Paying bills, getting the mail, contacting vendors, patients, clients, etc. all needs to happen. List out those tasks, and who would be responsible for each of them.
  • Plan for staff coverage. For example, if Team Member A is out, then Team Member B will step in to cover that department or essential tasks.
  • Plan for how clients/patients will be notified if you need to reschedule appointments.
  • Determine what work can be done remotely, and by who, and what equipment they will need. Remember that remote employees must still follow HIPAA protocols for accessing and securing access to PHI.

We recommend a scheduled daily check in with your team. Here at CEDR we are meeting each morning with our leaders to discuss any updates, both to how we want to operate internally and how we are advising our members. If we go to a remote work situation, we will schedule daily call-ins to a conference number and check in on everyone to keep the wheels on the bus.  We are currently stress testing various departments and our remote service systems because that is what makes sense for our business.

Finally, communicate to your team that you are keeping your eye on this and taking extra precautions. Encourage them to come to you with concerns, and with any ideas they may have. The goal here is to be prepared with preventative measures, and ensure your team feels supported and looked after.

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What should I do if an employee requests time off because s/he thinks they may have been exposed to the virus or are feeling sick with a fever?

You and the employee may want to review the CDC’s risk assessment criteria to better evaluate the situation. If the employee is concerned they may have been exposed, but does not currently have any symptoms, then you may want to consider having the employee work remotely performing administrative tasks (If that makes sense). We do understand that clinical staff can’t see patients remotely! Additionally, if the employee is actively sick, they should not work at all.

If you have a written sick leave and/or medical leave of absence policy in place, it will make this process much easier because all you have to do is follow your policy, just like you would any other time off or leave of absence request.

To start with, give the employee the OK to go home or to not come in. If they do have a heightened risk of exposure, you don’t want to introduce that to your office. Also be sure to document every step of the way.  Ask the employee to make the leave request in writing. You can have the employee provide medical certification from their medical provider of the need for leave and for how long. Approve the request in writing and make sure to establish an expected return date.  If you are subject to FMLA or any similar law, make sure to use the proper documentation in compliance with those laws.

All of this can be done over email or fax rather than the employee coming into the office. Where possible, if they need more than your policy allows (they certainly will if they have the virus) be accommodating of that. When the employee reports they are able to return to work, you should ask the employee to provide certification from their medical provider that they are fit to return to work and to indicate any work restrictions.

If you are a CEDR member, we can help you with each step of this process. Also note that in many instances employees will be well enough to work from home prior to being well enough to return to work. CEDR members have access to our remote PTO and Time Tracking software if you have asked us to set that up for you. The software will also help you and your employees track and categorize paid and unpaid time off as well as remote work hours. It’s also an excellent place to post bulletins to the entire team.

As a reminder for employers who are also medical providers: Being a doctor doesn’t allow you to make medical decisions for your employees. You’re in the employer/manager’s seat, not the doctor’s seat in this relationship. This means that all information regarding the employee’s medical condition should come from the employee’s medical provider.

Depending on your business’ size and location, employees who take sick leave or a medical leave of absence may be protected under the law.  This means that taking any adverse action against these employees would be highly risky. While we doubt anyone reading would take an adverse action because someone is sick, keep in mind that an employee’s illness may delay your ability to address other performance concerns.

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My employee has a compromised immune system and does not want to work.

If you have an employee with a chronic medical issue that causes them to be more susceptible to illness, or say an employee who is pregnant and concerned about her own health and the health of her baby, they may be worried about being exposed to the coronavirus in the workplace. It’s important to treat those concerns with respect, and show compassion for what the employee is going through.

We recommend meeting one-on-one with the employee (or by phone if they aren’t in the office) and talking through their specific concerns about the workplace. You may be able to take steps to make them feel more comfortable at work. The employee may also be able to get recommendations or work restrictions, in writing, from their healthcare provider. If so you should do what you can to accommodate those. Before you say no to any request like this, we highly recommend you contact CEDR so we can help evaluate your HR obligations. Also consider work-from-home options. Again, if their medical provider indicates in writing that they should not work, then we will help you lean back into your leave of absence policies and respond on a case-by-case basis.

If you are not able to arrive at a mutually workable solution, then you need to turn to your written time off policies. The employee may have a bank of paid time off available for use. If not, or if they run through that time, then you can allow them time off pursuant to your leave of absence policies.

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I have an employee returning from travel to an affected area, what should I do?

Here’s another reminder that there’s a lot of misinformation out there. So don’t make any decisions or jump to any conclusions without checking out the facts first. First, look at the specific location they are coming from to determine the actual level of risk. Just because an employee is returning from Asia or Europe, does not necessarily mean they have a higher risk of being infected, than if they had stayed here in the US.

Check out how many cases there have been in the specific country they are coming from, how long it has been since a new case has been identified, and review current CDC guidelines, including what the CDC is saying about the level of risk of travel to that specific country. This should help you determine what level of concern is reasonable.

If the employee is exhibiting any of the symptoms of the coronavirus, then you want to respond to that issue.

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Can I make an employee take a two-week leave of absence?

Based on the reasonable level of risk, decide what, if any, precautions you want to take. One of the options that we are asked about most often is whether employers can make the employee take a two-week leave of absence.

Before making this decision, there are a few legal risk factors that should be taken into consideration:

  • Depending on the size of your business and your location, there may be protections for employees who have a ‘perceived’ disability.  What this means is that an employee could file a claim saying that you discriminated against them based on the ‘perceived’ disability of having contracted the coronavirus.  A discrimination claim could be based on any adverse action you take against the employee based on this ‘percieved’ disability. Forced unpaid leave could easily be considered an adverse action.

All of that is to say that we want you to be cautious in the use of a blanket policy where you simply send people home based on something other than a clear, objective issue. Sending them home because they appear sick is one thing. Sending them home simply because they were recently in a specific geographic area is quite another.

  • If the employee feels they are being singled out due to their race or national origin, this would only add to the risk of a discrimination claim, especially if the employee is treated differently by the employer or their coworkers upon her return.

On the other hand, employers do have obligations under OSHA to provide a safe workplace to their employees.  So, as an employer, this kind of puts you in between a rock and a hard place, doesn’t it? Start with incremental leave and then extend it based on the facts and feedback from the employee.

A few other important factors to consider here:

If you have employees who express concerns about another employee returning to work after travel or having taken time to see if they are actually sick with the virus, let them know that you are happy they came to management with their concerns and should continue to do so.  Reassure them that their safety is management’s number one priority and that you are taking all precautions necessary to protect the workplace.

At the same time, when the travelling employee does return to work, it is important that s/he is not treated differently. Keep an eye out to ensure no one is making snide comments, shunning the employee, or doing anything out of the ordinary that may make the returning employee feel unwelcome.

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What if the office needs to close?

We certainly hope you don’t need to close your office. But if you don’t have enough healthy staff members to come in, or your patients are cancelling all their appointments, or your office has been exposed to the coronavirus, this is certainly a possibility.

If feasible and practical, employees should be authorized to work from home. Obviously healthcare providers can’t see patients this way, but at minimum you may have administrative tasks such as billing, insurance, and fielding phone calls, that can be set up remotely for a period of time. If your employees do not have experience working from home, then this will take some preparation. For this reason, we would recommend creating a remote work plan now that takes into consideration things like supplies (e.g. number of company laptops, forwarding phone calls), systems security, and a list of duties that can be performed remotely.

Having a work-from-home option also helps employees continue to have an income during a full or partial office closure. Pay your non-exempt employees for any time they spend performing work from home or going into the office to complete tasks (someone may need to pick up the mail). Your exempt employees must be paid in full for any days on which they perform work.

If the office is closed and employees are not working from home, their first question will be, “Are you going to pay us?” As usual you can make their sick/vacation/PTO time available for use. And, depending on your financial situation, it may not be a bad idea to provide some additional paid days during this type of unexpected office closure.  At the very least, make sure to comply with any written office closure policy you may have.

Legally you do not need to pay a non-exempt employee when they are not working. So issuing any pay beyond accrued PTO is entirely up to you. When it comes to your exempt employees, if you are closing for part of a week you need to pay their full salary for that week. If it is a full, week-long closure, exempt employees do not need to be paid.

We encourage you to inform your staff that they can file for unemployment during a temporary work closure. There’s often concern from employers about their unemployment taxes going up from employees collecting benefits. Remember that this is insurance that you already pay for, and if there were a situation where employees should be able to get benefits from insurance this is certainly it.

If you are a CEDR member, we can help prepare a letter to give to employees that explains the office closure, including the details of your remote work policy.

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What about my patients / clients / customers / vendors?

Since CEDR is an HR company, we are only addressing the business impact of COVID-19 on you as an employer. We work with hundreds of employers in the healthcare industry, so we know that there are related concerns that go beyond your employees. That does get outside the scope of our expertise, so we recommend seeking separate guidance on those topics. To get you started, here are some resources that may be useful to your business:

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If you are not a CEDR member and have a follow-up question, please comment on the article and we will get back to you. We also want to note that there is no way to easily identify whether an employee or a family member actually has the virus at this time. As that changes, we will add to our guidance.

For media inquiries, or to schedule an interview with CEO Paul Edwards and/or other CEDR Solutions representatives, send an email with the subject line “Media Inquiry” to

Post updated March 4, 2020. Originally published March 3, 2020.

Comments have been temporarily disabled, as we are focusing on responding to questions from our existing CEDR HR Solution Center members. If you would like to learn more about becoming a Solution Center member to gain access to our team of HR professionals, please email us at

Mar 20, 2020

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance based on applicable local, state and/or federal U.S. employment law that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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