Coronavirus: How Companies Can Protect Their Employees

The novel virus SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, better known as the "coronavirus", is not only dominating media coverage, but all areas of public life. The virus is spreading rapidly - especially in Europe. Even though serious effects on the economy and society are already emerging, it is unclear how the situation will develop. What is clear, however, is that precautionary measures must be taken by society as a whole to prevent the exponential spread of the virus and the resulting infections among risk groups. But what can employers and employees do specifically? And how can the daily business still be maintained?

Employers are obliged to take responsibility for their employees. This includes minimizing the possibility of infection. The coronavirus is transmitted via the air and body fluids. If employees show symptoms such as fever and cough, they should stay at home and contact their doctor by telephone. Employers also have the right to send home any employees who show such symptoms. However, to prevent infection from occurring in the first place, companies can take the following measures to keep operations running despite corona.

1. Protecting Risk Groups First

The following applies to all protective measures: People who would be particularly at risk as a result of an infection with the coronavirus must be protected more than others. This applies especially to employees over 65 years of age and employees with pre-existing medical conditions. According to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH, as of 13.03.20), people with high blood pressure, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, immunodeficiency diseases and therapies, cardiovascular problems and cancer are considered particularly in need of protection. Although these groups require special protection, employers are not permitted to specifically ask employees about diseases, as this would violate their personal rights.

2. Home Office

In offices, there are usually many employees sitting in a small space. And the way to work itself, especially because a lot of the Swiss are commuters, is associated with close contact and crowds of people. In order to avoid these sources of infection, employers do best by expanding home office facilities. The prerequisite for this is that appropriate work equipment and collaboration tools are available. Home office opportunities are also gaining in relevance because of childcare, as schools will remain closed until April 4 (as of 13.03.2020) and there will be no teaching at schools.

3. Avoiding Rush Hours

Home office cannot be guaranteed in every case. Therefore, if employees are still dependent on commuting to work, rush hours should be avoided if possible. To encourage this, companies can reduce attendance time to the bare minimum and arrange it around off-peak hours.

4. Hygienic Measures

Increased hygienic measures help to minimize the spread of viruses in the offices. The FOPH recommends that people wash their hands thoroughly and frequently and cough and sneeze in a tissue or in the crook of their arm. The FOPH also recommends disposing tissues in closed containers. Employers should therefore provide appropriate containers and provide sufficient soap and hand disinfectant. More frequent cleaning of surfaces, keyboards and door handles is also recommended. Caution: Wearing conventional protective masks does not provide sufficient protection against infection, so they should only be worn by those who show symptoms themselves and have to leave the house, nevertheless.

5. Keeping Distance

In a professional environment it is normal to get close to each other. Be it with regard to space in meetings or at work or be it physically when shaking hands to greet each other. The FOPH recommends that people keep distance - especially from risk groups - and avoid physical contact. This is also known as "social distancing". A friendly smile can be given as a greeting, and some places can be left empty during meetings and at work. Anyone who is in contact with other people for more than 15 minutes should keep a minimum distance of two meters.

6. No Events And No Trips Abroad

It is no longer possible to hold larger events such as conferences and meetings. Nationwide, events with more than 100 persons (as of 13.03.2020) are prohibited. For companies, however, local regulations apply, and in some cases even events with a minimum of 50 participants are prohibited. Cities and cantons provide information on this. Even if some of the larger events are still taking place abroad, participation is not recommended due to travelling and due to the contact to the international audience.

7. Complying With The Labor Law

Employers must respect the labor law and individual employment contracts even in exceptional situations such as in times of coronavirus. If the company closes due to the virus, the company is still obliged to pay wages. The ordering of (company) holidays is not legal. Furthermore, the employer is not entitled to order compulsory quarantine if this is not required by the authorities. Additional costs arising for employees as a result of preventive measures such as home office must be covered by the employer. However, employees also have duties and must continue their work, unless otherwise ordered by the authorities. Anyone who no longer wishes to take on certain tasks or who places themselves in quarantine without a doctor's order refuses to work and is generally no longer entitled to receive salary payments. Counselling services provide more detailed legal information. Additional information can further be found at the federal government and the labor unions.

8. Showing Goodwill

In order to reduce the workload of medical staff, employers are expected to show goodwill in the event of absences due to illness and to demand a medical certificate only after an absence of five working days. Generally speaking, those who treat employees with trust and show understanding can build up a long-term working relationship at eye level. After all, interpersonal relationships should not be neglected, even in difficult times.

Disclaimer: The proposed measures are just recommendations of SwisSolution, based on the current recommendations of the FOPH (as of 13 March 2020). Regularly review the measures communicated by the Confederation and follow them. If you have medical concerns, contact medical professionals and get legal advice if labor law issues arise

Author: Doris Fink