Return to Work Guidelines: Managing employees with COVID-19 symptoms

Posted in: COVID-19

COVID-19 has taken the country by storm over the past several months, and as we inch toward recovery as a nation, many companies are strategizing around returning to the workplace. In a recent webinar, a panel of PSA experts addressed the complexities and things to consider for leaders creating return to work guidelines. In this three-part blog series, we will cover three main areas to focus on, which include handling employees with COVID-19 symptoms, Human Resources concerns, and risk and safety management as you plan for your return to work.

As you likely know by now, the Coronavirus spreads via respiratory droplets from close (within six feet), person-to-person contact. With the soft reopening of the economy and many people returning to physical work sites, it is a probable scenario that one or even multiple of your employees could contract COVID-19. As an organizational leader, you must be prepared to handle this possibility and have an action plan. So, in this first post, we’ll discuss how to handle testing and health related matters as your employees slowly return to work.

Handling employees with COVID-19 symptoms

Most people infected with COVID-19 who do not have other underlying conditions will have mild symptoms and can recover at home—they may not need to be tested. However, those who are immunocompromised may be at higher risk to have serious illness and require testing and hospital care.

If one of your employees is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, you may want to share our previous post discussing the different COVID-19 tests available in case your employee needs to be tested. Official COVID-19 viral test is for those who are currently sick to test for the presence of the infection. The antibody test, on the other hand, can tell you if you previously had the infection.

In addition, you may also consider following these steps:  

  • Require the employee to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.
  • Instruct the employee to contact their doctor to see if two weeks is enough.
  • Notify other employees who came in contact with your positive employee without disclosing their name.
  • Send the employees who were in contact with the positive employee home to self-quarantine for 14 days as well.
  • Remain calm. Employees will take their reaction from you.
  • Stress to all employees that their well-being is your top priority. These steps are taken to protect them.

 Flu shot

Be prepared for a second viral spike. With cooler temperatures in the fall comes flu season, and many people are wondering about any link between flu and COVID-19. To be clear, the flu shot will not prevent COVID-19. However, the viruses do have similar symptoms, so if your employees get a flu shot and end up ill, doctors may be able to rule out the flu and more easily diagnose them.

A new way to managing sick employees

We often see employees going to work despite symptoms of illness for fear of losing pay, burdening others, or facing disciplinary action. With the evolution of COVID-19, this behavior and the motivators behind it must change as employees return to work. It is better to let one or two sick employees in the workplace to stay or work at home than to have your entire workforce exposed and potentially out of commission. As the employer, it is your responsibility to create and disseminate new policies surrounding best practices when ill.

When setting these policies, follow the CDC guidelines to gauge what is safe and appropriate. Here are a few key things to institute immediately:

  • When you require sick employees to stay home, there should be no fear of retaliation. This will protect your other employees from exposure.
  • Allow sick employees to work from home, if possible. This will decrease disruption to workflow.
  • Ensure any temporary agencies you contract with have policies in line with yours regarding managing sick employees. If your company is doing all the right things to protect your employees, but you have temporary employees coming in sick, it’s all for naught.
  • Don’t require doctor’s note from employees in order to stay or work from home while sick during the pandemic. You don’t want to slow down the already overloaded medical facilities.

We are all anxious to return to a place of “normalcy” in our lives, including physically returning to work. Some organizations are not able to operate remotely, while some are thriving, which means each company will need to evaluate the urgency of their return to work strategy and weigh business needs against safety measures. Remember, no matter when your employees return to a physical location, things will need to be different going forward. Create your strategy for handling sick employees now and communicate it clearly. You must do this first and foremost to protect your employees, and as a result, to protect your bottom line.

PSA is here to support our clients as we all strive to implement and follow return to work guidelines. If you have questions about COVID-19 testing or handling sick employees, feel free to contact me at Please also leverage our COVID-19 Business Resources for relevant updates and educational materials regarding the pandemic.