Bringing employees back to the office amidst a pandemic comes with its risks. Even if you screen employees, require wearing masks, and implement touchless technologies, an employee could still bring their illness to work. If an employee becomes sick, you need to be able to act fast to make sure others in the office stay healthy. Anyone who came into contact with someone who is sick is at an increased risk of becoming infected. To reduce the spread of illness and help employees get care sooner, many workplaces are implementing contact tracing programs. Contact tracing, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls a “key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19, breaks down into three key concepts:
- Find out who came into contact with an infected person.
- Notify anyone who may have been exposed.
- Provide support to those who are in quarantine to prevent further transmission.
As an employer, you can take an active role to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among your employees by creating a contact tracing program within your offices. Here’s how employers can create a contact tracing program that keeps your employees healthy, protects their privacy, and saves your team time.
Respect employee privacy with an opt-in approach
Employees are right to be concerned about how data on their health or location is accessed and used. Employers need to be careful how they handle employee data or they risk violating HIPAA or their local privacy laws.Take both into account by asking your employees’ permission to trace and notify their contacts within the company if they become ill. To help employees decide whether or not they will take part, create and share a contact tracing policy. This should describe how you will collect, use, share and retain employees’ information as part of your contact tracing process. Having a plan that’s public to your team lets employees make an informed decision about if they want to take part and how it helps them stay healthy.
Opt for technology to trace contacts instead of memory
Tracing everyone who an employee may have had close contact with in the office is an inexact process. The employee must remember everyone they interacted with that day. Even if they have a perfect memory, there is still the chance that someone they didn’t interact with was exposed. Shared bathrooms, door knobs and meeting rooms are all potential spreaders of germs. There are tools you can use to accurately trace who was in your office the same day as an ill employee. This could be as simple as keeping a log of who was in your office each day in an excel sheet, or as complex as giving all employees a wearable device that tracks their location. One way to automate this process while respecting employee privacy is by using an employee registration tool. That way you can pull an accurate list of who was on-site any given day. Create your list of requirements for a contact tracing tool, then test out tools until you find the one that works best for your company. Consider price, employee privacy, time savings, and how else the tool can help you safely reopen.
Make it a conversation, rather than a notification
When you reach out to a potentially exposed employee, you should have three goals. First, you need to inform them of their risk. Second, explain what they should do to separate themselves from others, specifically when it comes to the work setting. And third, offer support to them in this vulnerable time. Finding out that you may have been exposed to a disease can create a lot of anxiety. Help put employees at ease by being thoughtful about when and how you contact them. A phone call is preferred over email or text. That way, the employee can get answers to their questions and concerns in the moment. Share details about when and where they may have been exposed, so they can properly estimate their own risk of getting sick. For instance, share what days and times the sick employee was on-site and when they came down with symptoms. Always keep the identity of the sick person who may have exposed them confidential.Last, make it clear how the employee should quarantine based on your company’s policy. For instance, in Envoy’s Ready to Reopen plan, we ask that employees stay home for at least 10 days from symptom onset and 3 days after symptoms resolve.For more pointers on what to say to exposed employees as well as those who are sick, the CDC’s Contact Tracing Communication Toolkit is a goldmine of information.
Support employees as they quarantine
Whether an employee is sick or at risk of becoming infected, as an employer, you can help them get through this difficult time. One of the most important questions to ask employees, whether they’re sick or were exposed, is how can I support you?Here are some ways you can support employees:
- Make them comfortable taking time off. As part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act), employers are required to provide their employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. Make sure employees know they can take this time and aren’t obligated to rush back. That way, when they do return, you can trust that they’re healthy and ready to be productive on the job.
- If you offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), make them known. Whether you offer EAPs through your insurance providers or other means, let employees know what services are available to them free of cost.
- Connect them with community services. As an employer, you don’t have the time or knowledge to help an employee find a place to quarantine or where to get tested. Thankfully, there are community organizations that can do just that. Keep a list of local organizations that can support those who find themselves in difficult situations due to their need to quarantine. Here are two we share with employees in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance:
- Official website for California COVID-19 resources
- Official website for San Francisco COVID-19 resources
- Have senior leadership check in on sick employees. Make employees feel taken care of by having a senior leader touch base to let them know they’re thinking of them. For smaller companies, this might mean having your CEO give a sick person a call, or, for larger companies, a manager or team lead.
- Send employees a “Get better soon” kit. Companies who have the time and resources may consider sending sick employees a care package. Tea, hand sanitizer, and a warm blanket are all great things to include.
Your employees’ safety comes first, but that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice their privacy or spend hours tracing contacts. Having a plan for contact tracing builds employee trust and gives you more time to focus on keeping your workplace safe.