How School Districts and Community College Districts Should Respond to Employees’ Exposure to COVID-19

Category: Special Bulletins
Date: Mar 9, 2020 08:02 AM

This Special Bulletin follows up on our February 5, 2020 Special Bulletin on COVID-19, the novel coronavirus of 2019.  The information in that Special Bulletin remains valid, including those steps individuals can take to lessen the spread of the virus.

In the past month, COVID-19 spread throughout much of the world, including to the United States.  California has now reported its first fatality associated with the virus, and Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency.  Given the scope of the virus’s spread and the fact that health professionals do not anticipate a vaccine will be available for approximately one year, school districts and community college districts must make quick and important decisions concerning employees who, for example, exhibit symptoms of the virus, have traveled internationally or report having been in close contact with individuals who are infected or have traveled to areas where the virus is widespread and community transmission is sustained. 

Districts have a duty to provide a safe work environment for all their employees.  However, employees who are infected, exposed to, or exhibit symptoms of the virus do not lose their rights.  As a result, districts are struggling with complex personnel decisions that are requiring them to balance protecting the health and safety of the workplace with the rights of individual employees.  Every situation is unique and should be discussed with legal counsel and analyzed before taking action. Moreover, districts should seek the advice of health care professionals to confirm that the directive to the employee as to length of the leave is correct, and if not, adjust the directive initially given to the employee accordingly.  Lastly, districts must recognize that employees have due process rights and should review Sections 1.G and 2.E below which provide our recommendations on due process requirements.   

Below are some of the more common scenarios to help guide you:

            1.         Employee exhibits symptoms common not only to COVID-19, but also the common cold or influenza:

                        A.        Can you ask an employee to leave work and go home?

Yes, a district can require an employee to go home if the employee is showing symptoms of a communicable illness (such as fever, coughing, or shortness of breath). A district must ensure that it is acting in a non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory manner when making a decision to send an employee home. Therefore, districts should consider developing a standard by which they will act in scenarios where the employee is symptomatic (i.e., demonstrating signs of the illness).

Districts may consider the following criteria in order to develop such a standard: (1) exhibition of symptoms associated with COVID-19; (2) severity of symptoms; (3) travel to or through areas with known community transmission; and (4) known or suspected contact with affected individuals. Districts may develop other criteria, but any criteria should directly relate to the risk of transmission of COVID-19. 

Please refer to Section 2.A. below for additional discussion concerning risk assessments associated with international travel.        

B.        Am I required to send a sick employee home?

Under the California Occupational Safety and Health Act (“Cal-OSHA”), districts are required to maintain safe and healthy working conditions for employees. In addition, districts may have a duty of care to students to protect them from known risks.

Where there is a medical diagnosis of COVID-19, the district must immediately send the employee home because COVID-19 constitutes a “serious health condition” and a risk to other employees. The failure of a district to act to prevent the transmission of a known case of COVID-19 to other employees and would likely constitute a violation of Cal-OSHA. Failing to send an employee with a diagnosis of COVID-19 may also constitute a violation of a district’s duty of care to students and create legal liability for the district.

In the more likely scenario where there is no medical diagnosis of COVID-19, a district is not required to send the employee home. Here, the failure to act would likely not violate Cal-OSHA or a district’s duty of care to students because the district does not know the seriousness of the health condition or its transmissibility. However, districts must use reasonable care in order to provide for the safety of other employees and students to furnish suitable and safe facilities for work and educational activities. As discussed above, a district may use its discretion in determining whether to send an employee home, but should follow an objective standard in order to ensure it is not acting in an arbitrary or capricious manner.

C.        What is an employee’s pay status after the district sends them home?

If an employee sent home from work has a sick leave balance from which to draw, the district may require that the employee use such leave for the duration of the isolation period. In addition, the District may require classified and academic employees to use differential pay/extended sick leave after the exhaustion of full pay sick leave if otherwise eligible. Student employees are entitled to three days or 24 hours of sick leave if they otherwise meet eligibility requirements under the Healthy Workplaces Healthy Families Act. The District should allow them to use that leave, if available.

If an employee sent home from work has no sick leave balance from which to draw or the employee exhausts their sick leave, the district may require the employee to draw down accrued vacation time (classified employees or academic administrators who earn vacation pursuant to contract, only) prior to the district providing paid administrative leave to employees.

If, during an employee’s isolation period, the employee’s treating physician diagnoses the employee with COVID-19, the employee will qualify for FMLA/CFRA leave because the condition constitutes a “serious health condition.” Should the employee be diagnosed with COVID-19, the district may designate leave as FMLA/CFRA leave. In addition, classified and academic employees will be entitled to differential pay/extended sick leave after the exhaustion of full pay sick leave if otherwise eligible.

                        D.        What if the employee has no leave balances?

If an employee sent home from work has no paid leave balance from which to draw, the district should place the employee on paid administrative leave. The district may not place the employee on unpaid leave of absence due to illness without impairing the employee’s property interest in employment.  Keeping the employee in the workplace while the employee receives due process prior to the leave would put other employees at risk. (See below.)

This does not apply to employees who do not have for cause termination rights:  temporary faculty (both full-time and part-time), probationary classified employees, student workers, professional experts, short-term employees, limited term employees (merit system districts), and substitutes.

                        E.        Does it matter if the employee insists their symptoms are is just due to cold or allergies?

No, it should not. A district will be unable to distinguish symptoms associated with allergic reactions from those associated with communicable conditions, such as cold, influenza, or COVID-19.  Therefore, in order to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for all employees and a safe environment for students, the district should act in a consistent manner and apply the same standard to all employees who are symptomatic. 

If an employee provides a certification from their treating physician that the symptoms are non-communicable, the district may reasonably rely on such assurances and allow the employee to return to work. However, without such certification, the district should require that the employee remain at home until they are asymptomatic (i.e., showing no signs of fever, coughing or shortness of breath).

F.         If sent home, when can an employee come back to work?

A symptomatic employee sent home from work should contact a medical professional for further advice. The employee should engage in self-observation while away from work.

 The district should instruct the employee not to return to work unless the employee is asymptomatic. The district may require that the employee provide a note from the employee’s treating physician clearing the employee to return to work.  Furthermore, the district may require that the employee undergo a medical examination at the district’s expense for the purpose of determining the employee’s “fitness for duty” prior to their return to work.

The district should immediately send home from work any employee who returns to work after an illness and still exhibits symptoms of a communicable disease. If a district has concerns about an employee’s ability to perform their job, even after the employee has provided a note from their treating physician, the district may request that the employee undergo a medical examination at the district’s expense for the purpose of determining the employee’s “fitness for duty.”  If the employee was diagnosed with COVID-19, and the district designated the leave as FMLA/CFRA leave, the district must accept the physician’s certification that the employee can return to work.

 

            G.        Due process rights

Employees the district sends home are deprived of their property right to employment (if they have permanent status) and are entitled to due process, even where they receive pay during their leave by drawing down leave balances.  We suggest that districts provide required due process as follows:

1.) Employees the district sends home who are either (a) at-will with no property rights in employment (full-time and part-time temporary faculty, probationary classified employees, student workers, professional experts, short-term employees, limited term      employees (merit system districts), and substitutes); or (b) put on a fully paid leave not requiring them to draw down leave balances:

            No due process required.

2.) Employees who have property rights in their employment and must use leave balances for all or part of their leave:

a.) Given the exigent circumstances presented by COVID-19 in the workplace, no pre-deprivation due process is required.  (However, the district should review its board policies, administrative regulations, CBA’s and employee handbooks regarding any greater due process requirements under these circumstances);

b.) Post-deprivation due process is required.  The level of due process that is required depends on the circumstances.  Here, we believe a post-deprivation Skelly meeting should be sufficient if the issue is the drawdown of leave balances.  If a District wishes to put an employee on fully unpaid leave (e.g., no paid leave balances available and the district does not provide paid administrative leave), please contact legal counsel to discuss the potential risks.

                        To minimize potential due process claims and avoid the time and expense of providing due process, the district can choose the safer (but more expensive) option of putting all employees on fully paid leave. 

            2.         Employee exhibits no symptoms but you learn the employee has traveled to an area where there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19 or been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19:

                        A.        Can you ask the employee to leave work and go home?

Districts have a duty to maintain safe and healthy working conditions for employees and students. They must use reasonable care to provide for the safety of their employees and students and to furnish suitable and safe facilities for work and educational activities. If the district has reason to believe that an employee was exposed to COVID-19 and poses a threat to other employees or students, the district may place the employee on sick leave in order for the employee to seek a diagnosis.

As with symptomatic employees, districts should consider developing a standard by which they will objectively assess the risk of asymptomatic employees whose travel or interactions placed them at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

For individuals returning from international travel, the CDC publishes a risk assessment by country (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html) which districts may use to develop a risk assessment standard based on the employee’s travel. Current CDC advice provides that COVID-19 symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure. Therefore, a district could require any employee who has traveled to or through a country identified by the CDC as high risk remain at home and away from work for no less than 14 days after the travel unless a health professional advises the district that the employee may return earlier.  

For individuals who have known or suspected exposure to an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19, the district may require the employee engage in a comparable self-quarantine away from work for 14 days after such potential exposure, unless a health professional advises the district that the employee may return earlier.             

B.        What is an employee’s pay status after the district sends them home?

District may require that an employee use sick leave during any self-quarantine. In addition, the District may require classified and academic employees to use differential pay/extended sick leave after the exhaustion of full pay sick leave if otherwise eligible. If the employee exhausts their sick leave, the district may require that the employee draw down any accrued vacation time (where available) prior to placement on paid administrative leave.

Asymptomatic employees should remain in self-quarantine away from work for a period of not less than 14 days after the potential exposure. 

                        C.        What if the employee has no leave balances?

If an employee sent home from work has no paid leave balance from which to draw, the district should place the employee on paid administrative leave.   The employee retains a property interest in their job, which the district may not impair by placing the employee on an unpaid leave of absence due to illness or prospective illness, without providing due process.   

This does not apply to employees who do not have for cause termination rights: full-time and part-time temporary faculty, probationary classified employees, student workers, professional experts, short-term employees, limited term employees (merit system districts), and substitutes.

                        D.        If sent home, when can an employee come back to work?

Current CDC advice provides that COVID-19 symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure.  Therefore, employees should remain on leave for a period of not less than 14 days after the potential exposure unless a health professional advises the district that the employee may return earlier.   If the employee has not exhibited any symptoms associated with COVID-14 during the self-quarantine, the district may allow the employee to return to work.

            E.        Due process rights

Employees the district sends home are deprived of their property right to employment (if they have permanent status) and are entitled to due process, even where they receive pay during their leave by drawing down leave balances. We suggest that public districts provide required due process as follows:

1.) Employees the district sends home who are either (a) at-will with no property rights in employment (full-time and part-time temporary faculty, student workers, professional experts, short-term employees, limited term employees (merit system districts), and substitutes); or (b) put on a fully paid leave not requiring them to draw down leave balances:

            No due process required.

2.) Employees who have property rights in their employment and must use leave balances for all or part of their leave:

a.) Given the exigent circumstances presented by COVID-19 in the workplace, no pre-deprivation due process is required.  (However, the district should review its board policies, administrative regulations, CBA’s and employee handbooks regarding any greater due process requirements under these circumstances);

b.) Post-deprivation due process is required.  The level of due process that is required depends on the circumstances.  Here, we believe a post-deprivation Skelly meeting should be sufficient if the issue is the drawdown of leave balances.  If a District wishes to put an employee on fully unpaid leave (e.g., no paid leave balances available and the district does not provide paid administrative leave), please contact legal counsel to discuss the potential risks.

                        To minimize potential due process claims and avoid the time and expense of providing due process, the district can choose the safer (but more expensive) option of putting all employees on fully paid leave. 

3.         Employees who refuse to work with someone they suspect is infected, but who exhibits no symptoms and for whom there is no reason to believe the employee is infected; and employees who refuse to work somewhere that they suspect will cause them to become infected:

                        A.        Can the district discipline these employees for failing to return to work?

Districts must use reasonable care to provide for the safety of employees and students and to furnish a suitable and safe place of work.  This includes providing employees safety devices that are reasonably necessary in order to protect their health and safety.

Therefore, a district that has not provided or agreed to provide safety devices that are reasonably necessary to protect their employees’ health and safety may not discipline an employee who refuses to return to work until such time as the district can ensure their health and safety. A district may treat an employee’s refusal to return to work despite the district’s reasonable steps to ensure safe and healthy working condition as an unexcused absence or possibly insubordination.

Furthermore, the Government Code declares all public employees, including employees of school districts and community college districts disaster service workers subject to disaster service activities if assigned to them by superiors following a declaration of emergency.  An employee’s failure to follow a lawful emergency assignment could be grounds for discipline for insubordination.            

            B.        Does the district have any obligation to test the employee suspected of being infected, or remove that employee from the workplace?

Districts have no obligation to subject an employee suspected by another employee of being infected to medical tests or removal from the workplace.  As discussed above, a district must ensure that it is acting in a non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory manner and should develop a standard by which it will assess the risk of transmission by individual employees. Absent an individual employee exhibiting symptoms associated with COVID-19 or having traveled to areas or interacted with persons that would place them at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, the district should not arbitrarily subject an employee suspected by another employee of being infected to medical tests or removal from the workplace.

            C.        Does it matter if the employee refusing to work is in a high-risk group, (such as someone with a compromised immune system)?

According to the CDC, preliminary data suggests that older adults and persons with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems might be at greater risk for severe illness from the virus.

Older adults are not strictly protected under either the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) under these circumstances. However, FEHA allows employees with known pre-existing conditions, including underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems, to request a reasonable accommodation that will allow them to telecommute as opposed to returning to work. Employers must engage in the interactive process with employees who request reasonable accommodations and must accommodate the request if doing so would not create an undue hardship for the employer’s operation.

 

            4.         Do the actions described in this bulletin require negotiation with exclusive representatives?

Sending employees home, requiring the use of leave, and creating the list of factors to consider before doing so, etc., may trigger meet and confer obligations under the Educational Employment Relations Act or EERA. (Government Code section 3540, et seq.) Given the exigency related to protecting a district’s workforce, we recommend that, if a district decides to take action on a negotiable subject, the district immediately inform the affected employee associations. The district should provide these associations an opportunity to negotiate before making change. The Public Employment Relations Board (“PERB”) has recognized a business necessity defense that may allow a district to implement a decision before the ability to negotiate with its employee groups in the case of a true emergency, but the legality of that defense will be fact-specific and districts should determine whether to utilize the defense of business necessity on a case-by-case basis with the assistance of legal counsel.

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