The future of work: Employers must balance staff safety with health privacy laws

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Employees share lots of equipment at workplaces, pressing the same buttons on printers, computers and coffee makers. Staff must consider this, among many other factors, when returning to the office during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Pixabay.

More Californians are returning to workplaces as counties statewide get the go-ahead to reopen more businesses after the coronavirus shutdown. For many people, it’s a welcome step toward some semblance of everyday life. But others are concerned about infection. 

Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, says there are many factors to address at work when it comes to COVID-19 contagion.

That includes office layout and shared equipment. There are also policies on health checks, social distancing and cleaning/disinfection. 

Wilkes says most businesses aren’t currently built for a world with COVID-19.

“There are things like shared equipment that people don't really think about: photocopiers … faxes and coffee machines that everybody touches and uses. And then you've got bathrooms. And bathrooms aren't built for social distancing, even coming in and going out of the bathroom door,” he says. 

Wilkes notes that the Centers for Disease Control has not provided official reopening guidance, which may leave decisions to employers themselves. 

Behavioral changes will also have to happen, including a refrain from handshaking and an introduction to telemeetings. “Many businesses considered interactions between people one of the greatest assets, right? Blue sky meetings and creativity. How are they going to do that?”

Staff must also address sociocultural issues, including race, justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Wilkes says conflicts will arise due to these subjects, and people will need to be communicative, respectful and empathetic. 

Peer pressure will play another role. “People have different levels of comfort and vulnerabilities around risk of COVID. We all sort of act differently. AAnd we want to be protected in different ways,” he says. 

As the pandemic continues, employers will have to balance the protection of employees’ health with their right to privacy. 

He says a solution might be a mix of testing and questioning during health screenings. The specifics around requiring COVID-19 testing is still a work in progress.

“This is a situation that's evolving. I think that what's most clear to me is that a person who tests positive can't be, by law, forbidden or fired because they have the illness. That's a no go. But the whole testing thing, I think, is still an evolution,” Wilkes says.




Chery Glaser