Although most of us were unfamiliar with contact tracing until earlier this year, health authorities have used it to slow the spread of infectious diseases since the 1930s.
Now, coronavirus contact tracing is increasingly something employees expect when they return to work. In a recent PwC pulse survey, 35% of employees said they expected their employer to notify them if there is a COVID-19 case in their workplace. Meanwhile, 23% of CFOs who responded to a similar PwC survey said they were evaluating contact tracing tools and best practices.
If you do plan to implement contact tracing in your workplace, you need to make sure you’re doing it correctly to avoid potential violations of privacy and other issues. Here’s what you need to know.
What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing is the process of identifying all persons with whom an individual who is infected with a contagious illness has come into contact during the period of potential exposure and then taking necessary steps to break the chain of transmission.
In the case of coronavirus, contact tracing is especially crucial due to the fact that infected individuals can transmit the virus to others even when they aren’t exhibiting any symptoms.
For employers who want to conduct employee health screens and coronavirus contact tracing in the workplace, the CDC’s recommendations are a good starting point. However, there are some potential hazards associated with implementing these practices that employers need to know — specifically regarding compliance, consent, confidentiality, data privacy, and employee morale.
Here are some of the risks of administering health screens and coronavirus contact tracing, along with three mistakes you need to avoid.
What are the risks associated with mandated screening and coronavirus contact tracing?
Violation of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
Per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), any amount of time a non-salaried employee spends on an activity your company requires them to complete before they are allowed to engage in their regular work tasks must be compensated.
In the context of coronavirus contact tracing, this might include being tested for COVID-19, daily temperature checks, or filling out self-screening documents.
Failure to pay employees for the time required to perform these actions opens your organization up to litigation for wage theft.
Appearance of Discrimination
Regardless of what new safety measures you put in place, any requirements must be applied equally to all members of the workforce. When necessary, reasonable adjustments must be made for employees who are unable to comply due to medical reasons.
If not every employee is obligated to follow these rules or you fail to make modifications to accommodate team members with disabilities or medical conditions, your company is at risk for breaching Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The EEOC has published updated guidance related to what employers are permitted to do when conducting health screenings. Employers are permitted to take temperatures and ask about symptoms of coronavirus, such as a cough, loss of smell or taste, and gastrointestinal problems.
Employers may also require employees to be tested for COVID-19, provided the testing is accurate and reliable.
Any questions regarding an employee’s medical condition must be directly connected to the company’s efforts to protect the workforce from possible exposure to COVID-19.
Risk of Privacy Violation
Conducting coronavirus contact tracing poses the risk of violating employee privacy if it’s done incorrectly.
According to the EEOC’s guidance, the ADA requires all medical information about an employee be stored separately from their personnel file to limit access to confidential information. That would include a doctor’s note related to coronavirus, an employee’s disclosure, or documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms of COVID-19.
In addition to protecting access to personal health information, employers must also maintain employee confidentiality throughout their contact tracing protocol. If an individual discloses they have tested positive, employers should notify the workforce of a potential exposure without disclosing the individual’s identity.
3 coronavirus contact tracing mistakes to avoid
Lack of transparency
Communication between the management team and the rest of the workforce is always important. But when it comes to screening protocols and coronavirus contact tracing, communication becomes especially critical.
If you plan to implement health screening and coronavirus contact tracing in your workplace, tell your employees. Let them know a formal procedure is being developed and offer preliminary guidance on what they can expect.
Once an official policy has been created, have managers share it with their teams. Explain the specific steps that will be taken in the event an employee tests positive for COVID-19 and how you plan to protect their privacy.
The more transparent and detailed you are in your communications, the lower the risk of misinformation.
Additionally, let employees know how your company will support them if they become infected. The worst thing you can do is give the impression that it’s better for employees to conceal their illness.
Handling the news of infection incorrectly
If an employee informs you he or she has been diagnosed with COVID-19, two things need to happen simultaneously:
- Investigation and contact tracing must be started at the earliest opportunity.
- The rest of the workforce must be informed that one of their colleagues has tested positive and that the company is taking the necessary precautions to inhibit transmission to others.
If you wait too long to address the matter, it allows the rumor mill to get started, which can lead to employees panicking unnecessarily. It is crucial that you control the narrative so that false information doesn’t spread.
The level of detail provided to employees should be limited to only the relevant details — for example, when the infected individual was in the office most recently.
However, under no circumstances should the name of the infected employee be released publicly. The only individuals who should be informed are those responsible for conducting the investigation.
Even employees who are identified during the investigation as having been in close contact with the infected person at the time they were infectious should only be notified of their potential exposure. They should not be given the infected person’s name or any identifying information.
Not taking advantage of all available resources
Even the most knowledgeable experts with decades of experience are still learning about the distribution and determinants of this disease. The situation is constantly evolving, and new information is being released daily.
That’s why it’s so important to keep a close eye on new developments.
The CDC website has dozens of helpful materials about COVID-19 in general and contact tracing in particular, such as how to properly conduct an interview with an infected employee to ensure you gather all of the necessary information. Your local and state health departments will also be able to provide insight, advice, and assistance.
In addition, you can utilize software to support your efforts. iOFFICE’s integrated workplace management system (IWMS) has several tools that can help.
For example, our visitor management software creates a digital record of every individual who has been in your workplace. Should an employee test positive for COVID-19, you can use space management software to determine where they were sitting and who may have been in close contact with them during the period of potential exposure. You can also use the Hummingbird EX app to confidentially notify employees of potential exposure to coronavirus.
Maintaining a safe, healthy workforce now and in the future
Whether to implement coronavirus contact tracing in your workplace is a decision you should consider carefully. You need to be sure you have the resources to do it properly and take appropriate precautions to protect employees’ rights, including the right to privacy. Contact tracing is just one of many ways you can protect employees’ health and wellbeing as you return to work.
Maintaining spatial distancing, encouraging employees to stay home if they aren’t feeling well, increasing cleaning frequency, and continuing to promote good hygiene can also help reduce the spread of coronavirus in your workplace.
For more strategies from business leaders, download our latest resource, How to Plan A Safer Workplace Now And In the Future.