What to Do If There Is a Case of COVID-19 in the Workplace

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August 7, 2020

The California Department of Public Health recently issued new guidance for employers on how to safely reopen, by releasing a COVID-19 Employer Playbook For a Safe Reopening (revised July 31, 2020).  The playbook includes, among other things, instructions on what to do if there is a case of COVID-19 in the workplace.  The following are some of the main points on managing a COVID-19 outbreak and allowing employees to return to work after an outbreak.


If an employee tests positive for COVID-19 or is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, the employee should go home, and the employer should work with the local health department to follow guidance about quarantine, possible testing, and when the employee can return to work.  Employers should remember that even a single positive case can quickly develop into an outbreak, and it is employers’ responsibility to protect the health and well-being of their employees.

Outbreak Identification Preparedness:  Employers should designate a workplace infection prevention coordinator to implement COVID-19 prevention procedures and to manage COVID-19 issues among employees. Instruct employees to stay at home and report if they are having COVID-19 symptoms, were diagnosed with COVID-19, or are awaiting COVID-19 test results.  Identify the contact information for the local health department and notify it if there is a known or suspected outbreak in the workplace.  Develop mechanisms for tracking suspected and confirmed cases in coordination with the local health department.

Employers should ensure their sick leave policies are sufficiently generous and flexible to enable employees who are sick to stay at home without penalty, and should make sure employees are aware of such policies.

For more information, see our articles on COVID-19 sick leave laws:






Communication of Identified Cases of COVID-19:  There are certain considerations employers should keep in mind for communicating identified cases of COVID-19 with other employees and with the local health department.

Employers must notify all employees who were potentially exposed to another employee with COVID-19.  However, employers must make every effort to maintain the confidentiality of employees with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 when communicating with other employees.  Close contacts of cases should be given instructions on home quarantine and symptom monitoring, information regarding nearby COVID-19 testing sites, information on any applicable COVID-19 sick leave policies, return-to-work policies, and a referral to the local health department.  Depending on the circumstances, employees who were never symptomatic and did not have close contact with confirmed cases may continue to work, as long as all necessary measures have been implemented.  All employees should follow all instructions for infection prevention and outbreak management measures.

If the facility uses contract or temporary workers, identify who should communicate information and instructions to those individuals.  Include worker representative groups in communicating strategies where applicable.

It is also important to report COVID-19 cases to the local health department.  Communicate with the local health department on how frequently it expects updates on newly identified cases and symptomatic workers.  Since employees may live in counties outside the workplace location, employers should also contact the local health department in any jurisdiction where a COVID-19 positive employee resides to let it know about the outbreak.

For more information, see our article:


Preventing Further Spread in the Workplace:  Employers should seek guidance from the local health department to develop a testing strategy to determine who needs to be tested.  If testing is limited or not recommended, the local health department may recommend other methods for controlling the outbreak, such as tracing close contacts of confirmed cases and instructing those people to quarantine, or temporarily closing the workplace and quarantining all employees.

Employers should provide their local health department with information on employees confirmed to have COVID-19, including close contacts in the workplace and any shifts worked while infectious.  Use employment records to verify shifts and others who may have worked closely with them during the infectious period.  A “close contact” is someone who spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of someone with COVID-19 during the infectious period, which at a minimum includes the 48 hours before symptoms developed.  Close contacts should be instructed to quarantine at home for 14 days from their last known contact with the employee with COVID-19, should self-monitor daily for COVID-19 symptoms, and should be tested for COVID-19 themselves.

Returning to Work: Employers should consult with their local health department and most recent CDC guidance for the most up-to-date information.  As of July 24, 2020, the minimum criteria for returning to work was the following:

1)  Symptomatic Positive (employees with symptoms who are laboratory confirmed to have COVID-19): At least 1 day (24 hours) has passed since last fever, defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and, at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.

2)  Asymptomatic Positive (employees who never had symptoms and are laboratory confirmed to have COVID-19): A minimum of 10 days has passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 test.  If they develop symptoms, then the criteria for laboratory confirmed cases with symptoms apply.

3)  Symptomatic Negative (employees who had symptoms of COVID-19, were tested, and were negative): Use the same criteria for return to work as laboratory confirmed cases.

4)  Asymptomatic Negative (employees who never had symptoms but were tested due to a close contact with a laboratory confirmed case patient and were negative): Employees should quarantine at home for 14 days after the last known close contact with the case patient.  Symptoms can develop even after testing negative within 14 days after exposure.  The local health department may consider allowing earlier return to work only for an employee in a critical infrastructure industry in which the essential operations of the workplace would be compromised by quarantine of the employee and no alternate staff can perform the same role.**

5)  Symptomatic Untested (employees who had symptoms of COVID-19 but were not tested): Testing is highly recommended. If the employee cannot be tested, use the same criteria for return to work as laboratory confirmed cases.

6)  Asymptomatic Untested (employees who had close contact to a laboratory confirmed case patient at work, home, or in the community and do not have symptoms) OR employees who refuse or are unable to be tested after close contact with a laboratory confirmed case, despite recommendation for testing from the local health department or healthcare provider, and do not have symptoms: Employees should be quarantined at home for 14 days after the last known close contact with the case patient.

Testing is highly recommended; if testing has not occurred, the local health department may consider allowing an employee who had close contact to a confirmed case to continue to work only in a critical infrastructure industry in which the essential operations of the workplace would be compromised by quarantine of the employee and no alternate staff can perform the same role.**

Employees who develop symptoms of COVID-19 while in quarantine should contact their healthcare provider.  Even if they are not tested, the same criteria for return to work should be used as laboratory confirmed cases.

**Regarding the two groups of employees in a critical infrastructure workplace outbreak (asymptomatic employees who tested negative and/or employees who were close contacts to confirmed cases): Where a 14-day quarantine would compromise essential operations, the local health department may determine that some employees in these two groups may return to work sooner than 14 days by considering certain criteria specific to the workplace and employee:

• The employee is able to wear a surgical mask throughout the workday, except while eating, and comply with all infection prevention procedures.  A cloth face covering may also be used in the event of mask shortage.

• The facility has implemented all best practice infection prevention procedures, as determined by the local health department.

• Pre-screening to assess worker temperature and symptoms prior to starting work has been implemented, ideally before entering the facility.

• The employee is able to self-monitor for temperature and symptoms at home and work.

• The employee is able to maintain a minimum of six feet of distance from other workers in the workplace. Of note, six feet does not prevent all transmission of COVID-19.

• Physical barriers are in place between fixed employee work locations to supplement distancing.

• Cleaning and disinfection of all areas and shared equipment can be performed routinely in the workplace.

Employers Cleaning Guide:  Employers should complete certain cleaning actions after an employee with COVID-19 has been to work.  They must also regularly check for and follow new and updated guidance on their specific industry.

The work areas of infected employees should not be entered by other employees until they have been cleaned and disinfected with products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for COVID-19.  Work should be performed by cleaning staff trained on their safe use and supplied with all required and recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).  Employers should perform ongoing enhanced cleaning/disinfection of work areas when an employee with COVID-19 is identified, following CDC recommendations, and should continue to identify and regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces throughout the workplace, such as doorknobs, equipment, and handrails.

Employees should not share headsets or other objects that may come into contact with their face, mouth, or nose.  Minimize sharing of other equipment between workers; for equipment that must be shared, conduct frequent cleaning between worker use.  Train employees on safe use of cleaners and disinfectants and provide necessary protective equipment.

Need more information?
ESKRIDGE LAW may be contacted by phone (310/303-3951), by fax (310/303-3952) or by email (geskridge@eskridgelaw.net). Please visit our website at eskridge.hv-dev.com.

This article is based on the law as of the date posted at the top of the article.  This article does not constitute the provision of legal advice, and does not by itself create an attorney-client relationship with Eskridge Law.