Law firm recommends employers disclose COVID-19 diagnosis to workers

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Multiple people have reached out to WHNT News 19 with a similar concern, that a coworker may have COVID-19 and they don't feel like their managers are keeping their employees safe from the spread of disease.

Lanier Ford Shave & Payne is a law firm in Huntsville. They've created a COVID-19 task force to answer questions about this novel virus, like what to do if a coworker is diagnosed with the disease.

What are employers allowed to tell people who worked in close proximity to the person with the diagnosis?

"There's not a law that applies to that sort of disclosure," said David Canupp, shareholder, Lanier Ford Shave & Payne.

But the attorney says OSHA requires certain workplace illnesses be recorded and reported. He believes the law supports that requirement applying to COVID-19.

"In certain circumstances for instance, if an employee was hospitalized, an employer would have 24 hours to notify OSHA of that, and that's information that we would advise to go ahead and share with employees as well," he said.

In the event that an employe does come down with the novel coronavirus, Canupp says they should contact the county or even the state health department.

"I believe it would be very beneficial for employers to follow the guidance that is given in terms of disclosure. There is not an overarching federal law that requires disclosure to customers, that someone has come down with these sort of symptoms, but the department of health has a lot more power than people realize and might decide to request something like that," he said.

Social distancing is being encouraged, and many people are working from home or being kept 6 feet away from each other at the office.

But can an employer be held liable if they don't take protective measures and someone gets sick?

"We're in a brave new world right now, this is not an area that has frequently resulted in lawsuits, but I do think it is possible that we will have some in this context," Canupp said.

He says workers' compensation laws apply to all employers in Alabama, but they typically exclude diseases.

"On the other hand an individual who contracts the disease, who can track it to something that happened at the workplace, may have a claim against their employer. The problem comes in proving where you got it," he said.

Canupp says since COVID-19 is so contagious it could be hard to prove a person didn't get it somewhere else.

Some companies have laid off workers due to lack of work. Canupp says in Alabama, those employers are not required to offer severance.

"Employers pretty much have the discretion to layoff workers when they need to and there is nothing specific they have to be paid other than the wages they are entitled to," Canupp said.

He says congress could pass a new bill as early as next week that would help employers continue to pay people through the hardships brought about by the pandemic.

"It's going to have a major impact on businesses in several different ways. It may provide more entitlement to employees and businesses need to be aware of what they are going to have to do. It's also probably going to provide a lot of help in the form of loans for payroll. Employers are worried they are going to have to furlough or lay off workers. And to them, I would say if you could hold on, try because Congress does not want you to fail. I think we are going to see some relief for employers coming in the next week."

Canupp says there are new laws to help employees that have been enacted since COVID-19 was first diagnosed in the US.

He says the Family First Act, which was passed by Congress last week, is providing new protections for employees who need to take time off for sick leave, to attend to a sick relative, or to stay at home with a child whose school is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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