Tag Archives: Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

Why You Need to Pay Attention to How the Feds Are Approaching the Meat and Poultry Processing Industry

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, April 28, 2020

While most employers do not take issue with CDC and OSHA recommendations related to hand washing, sanitizing, personal protective equipment (PPE), or even employee screening – the  social distancing aspect of these guidelines often provoke the greatest resistance from manufacturing employers:  “We’re just not set up to operate that way.”

Over the last few weeks, we have all seen the headlines regarding Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson.  The meat processing plants have become alleged hot beds for COVID-19, leading to plant closures.  Last week, Smithfield workers sued the company alleging that the company “in direct contravention of CDC guidelines,” provides insufficient personal protective equipment, forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder, and schedules their working time and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms. Last week, Tyson Foods also closed its Waterloo plant in the face of a significant COVID-19 outbreak among its workers and an OSHA complaint filed by Iowa lawmakers. According to a USA Today article  published a week ago, the outbreaks have caused the closure of 17 U.S. facilities, including a Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota that handles 5% of U.S pork production. 

In response, the CDC and OSHA issued joint agency guidance for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers on April 26.  The agencies identified “distinctive” factors that increase workers’ risk for exposure to COVID-19 in these workplaces:

  • Distance between workers – workers often work close to one another on processing lines. Workers may also be near one another at other times, such as when clocking in or out, during breaks, or in locker/changing rooms.
  • Duration of contact – workers often have prolonged closeness to coworkers (e.g., for 10-12 hours per shift). Continued contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
  • Type of contact –workers may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air – for example, when workers in the plant who have the virus cough or sneeze. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables. Shared spaces such as break rooms, locker rooms, and entrances/exits to the facility may contribute to their risk.
  • A common practice at some workplaces of sharing transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation
  • Frequent contact with fellow workers in community settings in areas where there is ongoing community transmission.

However, these factors do not appear to be so distinct to the meat and poultry processing industry. Some or many of these conditions likely exist in any number of manufacturing  operations. Notably, these factors are all focused on a lack of physical distance between workers.

The events occurring within the meat and poultry processing industry should be a cautionary tale to all manufacturing employers who recognize any of the above factors within their operations and workforce. While some of these recommendations may require herculean efforts during this time of overstretched resources, some consideration should be given to the potential costs of a COVID-19 outbreak among employees, OSHA investigation, production shutdown, and litigation aimed a enforcing these non-mandatory guidelines. 

Breaking news:  Just hours ago, President Trump indicated that he intends to use the Defense Production Act issue to order meat and poultry (and likely other types of food) processing plants to remain open as the country is starting to see food-supply disruptions from the COVID-19 outbreak. This comes on the heels of the declaration from Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson that the U.S food supply chain “is breaking.”  President Trump has indicated that the executive order will “solve any liability problems,” so as to shield meat plants from legal liability if they are sued by employees who contract COVID-19 while on the job.  Media reports also indicate that the executive order will include provisions for additional protective gear for employees, guidance, and virus testing capacity. This is a developing matter and we will continue to monitor it. 

CDC Issues Guidance on the Coronavirus for Employers

Contributed by Suzannah Wilson Overholt, February 24, 2020

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) slowly appears outside China, employers should take precautions to protect their workplaces. To that end, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance for businesses and employers regarding COVID-19.

 While the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, COVID-19 is not the flu. Coronaviruses range from the common cold to SARS and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). COVID-19’s symptoms are a mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms may appear in two to 14 days after exposure. There is no easy way to test for COVID-19. A person may be infectious even if she does not have symptoms. COVID-19 appears to spread between people who have close contact with one another, i.e., being coughed or sneezed upon.

The CDC’s guidance is intended to help prevent workplace exposures to acute respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, in non-healthcare settings. The guidance should be used to determine the risk of COVID-19 infection. Determinations of risk should not be based on race or country of origin. Confidentiality of people with confirmed coronavirus infection must be maintained.

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home: 
    • Employees who have symptoms should stay home until they are free of fever, signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of medication.
    • Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible, consistent with public health guidance, and employees are aware of these policies.
    • Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees to validate their illness or to return to work. Healthcare providers may not be able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
    • Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.
  • Employees who appear to have symptoms upon arrival to work or during the day should be sent home immediately.
  • Emphasize coughing/sneezing etiquette and hand hygiene. Provide tissues, no-touch disposal receptacles, soap and water, and alcohol-based hand rubs.
  • Perform routine environmental cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces and provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down before use.
  • Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling:
    • Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for guidance and recommendations for each country to which they will travel.
    • Check themselves for symptoms before starting travel.
    • Notify their supervisor if they become sick while traveling and promptly call a healthcare provider for advice if needed.
    • If outside the United States, follow the company’s policy for obtaining medical care or contact a healthcare provider or overseas medical assistance company to assist with finding an appropriate healthcare provider. A U.S. consular officer can help locate healthcare services.
  • Measures for employees who may have been exposed:
    • Employees who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor.
    • If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, the employer should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure but maintain confidentiality.
    • Exposed employees should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.

We will continue to monitor developments in this area.

Flu Season: Common Questions From Employers

Contributed by Debra Mastrian, February 13, 2019

sick man lying in bed and thinking about all the work that piles up on his desk

The flu virus circulates all year round, although according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity historically peaks in February. Here are a couple of flu-related questions frequently asked by employers:

Is an employee entitled to FMLA for absences due to the flu?

Maybe. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides covered employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12 month period if the employee has a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform” his or her job.  A serious health condition is an illness that involves either inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.  Inpatient care is typically an overnight stay in a health care facility.  Continuing treatment is more complex but is generally a period of incapacity of more than three consecutive full calendar days and any subsequent treatment or period of incapacity that also involves either (1) treatment or consultation with a health care provider two or more times within 30 days of the initial incapacitation or (2) treatment or consultation with a health care provider at least once and a regimen of continuing treatment under the supervision of the healthcare provider. A “regimen of continuing treatment” includes prescription medication, even without a follow-up medical appointment.  29 C.F.R. § 825.115.  Over the counter medications (aspirin, flu medicine), bed rest and fluids or other treatment that may be initiated without the direction of a health care provider, do not qualify as a “regimen of continuing treatment.” 

So, while an employee with a typical case of the flu who recovers with only self-care generally does not qualify for FMLA leave, extenuating circumstances can trigger coverage. It is important to focus not on the name of the illness—flu—but rather on the facts of the particular situation to determine whether an illness is a “serious health condition” as defined by the FMLA. When an employee calls in sick with the flu and is absent more than three consecutive days, the cautious approach is to send the employee an FMLA medical certification form.  It is risky to deny FMLA leave without first taking steps to determine whether the absence qualifies for FMLA protection.  If the employee returns the completed medical certification, the employer can then assess whether the condition is a “serious health condition.”  (Note:  Even if FMLA does not apply, an employee may be entitled to leave under state or local sick leave laws, or the employer’s sick leave or paid time off policies. Depending on the circumstance, an employer may also need to examine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (ADA), applies.) 

Can an employee who is exhibiting flu symptoms at work be sent home?

Yes, an employee who is exhibiting flu-like symptoms at work (e.g., fever, excessive coughing, vomiting, chills, etc.) can be sent home (or instructed not to come to work). Employers have the right to manage their workforce.  This includes excluding potentially infectious employees, even if they want to work. Preventing the spread of contagious illness is a legitimate concern for employers. Employers can send sick employees home in an effort to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. (Note: OSHA requires all employers to maintain a safe and healthy workplace.) 

Employers should, however, be consistent and fair in how they handle each situation. This is important for employee morale and to avoid legal claims (e.g., allegations of discrimination). Adopting an infectious disease policy will give employees and managers guidance on how to handle these situations.