We recently had our first employee test positive for COVID-19. I told her coworkers that they need to quarantine. But our CEO says as long as they are symptom-free, they can still come to work. What should my policy be when an employee tests positive?
Confused About COVID Protocols
I hope your employee recovers rapidly with no side effects—and that no one else at the office tests positive. There are the clear guidelines from the CDC for quarantining in case of COVID-19 exposure. Not only does your CEO need to get familiar with them, but she or he needs to comply. If you suspect there’s intentional non-compliance taking place, you need to have a serious conversation. More on that below.
But first, here’s what you need to know about COVID-19 policy.
If an Employee Tests Positive for COVID-19
The employee needs to quarantine for 10 days, be fever-free for 24 hours (without fever-reducing medication, like Tylenol or Advil) and have reduced COVID symptoms before returning to work.
There’s no need to provide a negative COVID result—in fact, the employee may still test positive at that point, but the CDC says individuals are no longer contagious after 10 days.
Of course, if your employee is still feeling terrible, or his doctor says he’s not ready to return to work, then he stays home. Employers don’t override doctors.
When Colleagues Need to Quarantine
Only employees who have been exposed need to quarantine. But what does exposure mean? Here is the CDC’s definition:
An individual was within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.
An individual provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19.
An individual had direct physical contact with the person (hugged or kissed them).
A colleague shared eating or drinking utensils with an infected individual.
An infected individual sneezed, coughed or somehow got respiratory droplets on a colleague.
Because we’re talking about a professional setting, it’s likely that you only need to be concerned about the first situation—being within six feet of the infected employee. Even though your CEO might not like it, colleagues that had this level of close contact need to quarantine.
While the gold standard of quarantining is now 10 days as long as there are no symptoms, there are some other options, too. If an exposed colleague tests negative at least five days after the exposure, the quarantine period can be reduced to seven days.
The only other alternative to quarantine is previous illness or vaccination—if someone was exposed, but they’ve already had COVID-19 in the past three months, or if they’ve been fully vaccinated, there’s no need to quarantine. Again, these are official CDC policies—your CEO doesn’t get to choose otherwise. Now, about the CEO…
Consequences For Non-Compliance with COVID-19 Regulations
The strongest argument for any cause is an evidence-based one. Show your CEO this piece, detailing OSHA regulations that businesses must follow—including quarantine orders. If putting employees’ lives in danger doesn’t resonate with your leader, then perhaps this will: the CDC can issue guidelines, but OSHA can issue fines. That hurts the bottom line, and no company wants to throw money away.
Plus, depending on factors like role and industry, healthy quarantined employees can work from home. And, until March 31, 2021, if your company has fewer than 500 employees, you can receive tax credits for paying those who quarantine.
And here’s one other incentive to keep in mind: What happens if these exposed employees get sick, expose others and suddenly turn your company into a COVID hotspot? Not only does this become a health disaster, but it also creates a PR nightmare.
When you have a leader on your hands that’s not taking the pandemic seriously, sometimes, you need to play hardball. Get your CEO on the same page immediately, and send everyone home who should be home.
Suzanne Lucas, EvilHRLady.org