What employers need to know to combat coronavirus

This story was published on Feb. 6 and has been updated.

The coronavirus is continuing to spread globally and 60 cases have been confirmed in the U.S., leading to increased anxiety and confusion over how to prepare. Workplaces are being encouraged to be overly cautious.

Employers have started taking precautionary measures as the outbreak continues to advance. Workday and Facebook, among others, have cancelled large-scale conferences scheduled for March that were expected to draw in thousands of workers. Facebook, Starbucks and WeWork have also closed office locations in China or have asked workers to telework. Companies including accounting giant PwC and LG have placed mandatory travel bans to and from China.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools and everyday people to begin preparing.”

The World Health Organization released guidelines for how companies can work to prevent an outbreak. Their recommendations include disinfecting workspaces, promoting hand washing and personal hygiene, and encouraging education about travel advisories before taking business trips.

Read more: How AI can address employees' fears of coronavirus

The Society for Human Resource Management is asking employers to encourage telework and quarantine employees who may be showing symptoms or have returned from high-risk areas.

“As more cases of coronavirus continue to spread around the world and within the U.S., employers must take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of this virus within the workplace. To preempt this potential danger, employers should ensure business continuity plans take into account and prepare for biological threats,” SHRM said in a statement.

Since December, over 82,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported, and 2,817 people have died, WHO reported. The disease has spread to 47 countries, on all continents except Antarctica. In the U.S., there have been 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Employers need to have essential protocols in place to protect employees and avoid misinformation, says Joe Deng, an employment law partner at Baker McKenzie law firm.

“If you don’t have a pandemic policy, you as an employer will very likely have analogous policies that can be used in this situation,” Deng says. “When planning for this scenario, you need to ask what are the objective facts and what are your options.”

A critical first step to carrying out proper protocol is establishing a senior-level point person who can gather information, communicate across teams and report to upper management to implement the plan if necessary.

“You have to have someone who has the right touch and that can be subjective,” Deng says. “Find a person now who is the most knowledgeable and has the time and resources to gather information, assemble a cross functional team, and has access to a decision-making authority.”

Taking these smaller, preventative measures early on will prepare both the employer and the employee in the event more extreme measures need to be taken. A more measured approach will make employees feel confident and protected.

“Think about how you want to be seen by your employees when this is over. You don’t want your employees to say, they didn’t tell me what to do or I had no support,” Deng says. “You’re not just preparing for an emergency. You’re working on how to come out with a better, stronger and more resilient workforce.”

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