What should you do if you have an employee who tests positive for COVID-19?

Published April 3, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed employers to face a new reality and prepare for situations that they have never faced before. The most common question in an employer’s mind is what should I do if I have an employee who tests positive for COVID-19? In this article we will explore the next steps and considerations for your company.

What should employers do if an employee informs them that they have tested positive for COVID-19?

While employers need to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for employees, they also need to balance their obligations of privacy and anti-discrimination under state and federal laws.

The current advice offered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is, if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19:

  • Employers should inform other employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace while maintaining confidentiality of who has the illness (do not reveal identity).

Employers should be thoughtful about who needs to know and what those people need to know to minimize the risk of disclosure of confidential medical information. Employers should treat all information about an employee’s illness as a confidential medical record and keep it separate from the employee’s personnel file.

  • As a precautionary measure, an employer may want to consider asking all employees who worked closely with that employee to self-quarantine for 14 days to better ensure the virus does not spread.
  • Employers should also immediately contact local health officials for further guidance.
  • Finally, the employer may want to consider asking a cleaning company to complete a deep cleaning of its workspace. If a company works in a shared office building or area, then it may be necessary to inform building management so necessary precautions can be taken.

Can employers ask employees to go home if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19?

Individuals with COVID-19 have had mild to severe respiratory illness with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. If employees show these symptoms, employers can ask them to go home and direct them to speak with their doctor.

Employers should make information from public health sources available to educate employees about the symptoms of COVID-19.

Can I stop employees from going home because they fear they will be exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace?

Employees who refuse to work may have protection from adverse action. For example, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employees may have the right to refuse to work if all of the following conditions are met:

  • Where possible, they have asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so
  • They genuinely believe an imminent danger exists
  • A reasonable person would agree there is a real danger of death or serious injury
  • There isn’t enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection

Employers may want to consider offering one of the following options:

  • Option of working from home if possible
  • Flexible work schedule in order to limit contact with others
  • Offer paid or unpaid leave

Can employers require employees to provide medical releases before they return to work?

The CDC has advised that employers should not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave or to return to work. Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.

Additional Resources

The Department of Labor (DOL) has published questions and answers to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. We’ve complied some of the most pertinent questions and answers that can be found here.

We’re here to help.

For more information on these loans, contact covidhr@mcmcpa.com and a member of MCM CPAs & Advisors COVID-19 Solutions Group will be in touch.



You should consider consulting your legal counsel regarding these matters as well as any union contract considerations. Nothing in this document should be construed as providing tax advice.  Please consult with your own professional tax advisor.  In addition, this document represents the information that we have up to the date the presentation was made and cannot be relied upon for additional updates beyond that date. 

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