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My Employee Has COVID-19 – What are my Rights as an Employer?

Client Alert

Ensure your company is prepared for a COVID-19 surge this winter.

COVID-19 is on the fast track to more cases than we have seen since the peak of COVID-19. Now is the time to prepare.

The US government just approved updated COVID-19 vaccines and advised that effectively every American should receive one. Some local businesses have reinstituted mask mandates, while others wonder if they should mandate testing for sick employees. Amidst all these changes, many employers are left wondering: what are my rights to protect my employees, myself, and my business?

Below is a discussion of the most common questions we receive about COVID-19 from our clients.

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) confirms employers can use an “accurate and reliable test” to determine if an employee has COVID-19 so long as it is “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Employers can even make a negative test a condition to enter the workplace if an infected worker would potentially “pose a direct threat to the health of others.” 

The EEOC’s position should cover most employers who want to test an employee with COVID-19 symptoms. Additionally, this guidance may support mandatory testing during COVID-19 surges regardless of symptoms. Check with skilled counsel as these standards will likely develop (and possibly change) as winter approaches. Please note, this does not include antibody testing, which is not permissible. 

However, just because you can legally do it does not mean you should. There are various factors employers should consider before implementing a testing policy:

  • Current CDC recommendations (which currently do not require testing);
  • The likelihood your workplace will allow COVID-19 to quickly spread among employees, customers, vendors, etc.;
  • Employee response to mandatory testing;
  • Availability of COVID-19 tests;
  • Government requirements for isolation upon a positive COVID-19 test; and
  • Equal application of the policy to all employees, including managers and key employees.


No. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers from asking employees medical questions about family members. For example, GINA prohibits employers from asking employees to provide their family members’ medical examination results, including COVID-19 test results.

GINA, however, does not prohibit an employer from asking employees whether they have had contact with “anyone” diagnosed with COVID-19 or who may have symptoms associated with the disease. Moreover, from a public health perspective, only asking about an employee’s contact with family members would limit the information obtained about an employee’s potential exposure to COVID-19 and thus should be avoided.


The best general rule is to follow current CDC guidelines. The current guideline are below. However, be sure to check the CDC’s website yourself, as the recommendations may change over time.
Current guidance recommends sick individuals wear masks through day 10 (calculated starting from either the day of testing or date of onset of symptoms).

However, it may be permissible for employers to use a company-wide mask mandate in certain circumstances. Most obviously, where CDC guidance changes, employers can follow suit. Additionally, it may be appropriate to issue a mask mandate during COVID-19 surges, especially in medical facilities and other workplaces where COVID-19 could easily spread. For example, a few hospitals and medical facilities in California issued mask mandates during a COVID-19 surge earlier this fall.


If an employee reports having COVID-19 symptoms or reports testing positive for COVID-19, you can require them to isolate pursuant to CDC guidelines. The current guidelines say:
If an employee has COVID-19 symptoms, they can be required to stay home until they are fever-free for 24-hours. Employees who are moderately ill should isolate through day 10. In general, you should go by the employees self-reported symptoms, although you can require a doctor’s note pursuant to company policy. No company policy? Call us so we can help you enact one.


Yes. In general, employees can be required to take PTO when they have COVID-19. For the purposes of addressing whether your company can require an employee to take sick time/PTO when they are sick, you should look at the company’s general policies for sick time. The general rules for deducting PTO and sick time from an employee depends on whether the employee is nonexempt or exempt under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act). 

Non-exempt, hourly employees can be required to use sick time in hourly increments. In other words, if an employee is scheduled to work for 8 hours and that employee works 5 hours, you can deduct 3 hours of PTO from the non-exempt employee’s pay. If the non-exempt employee does not have any accumulated PTO, they do not need to be compensated for their time off.

Exempt, salaried employees can also be required to use their sick time. However, in contrast to their non-exempt counterparts, exempt employees can only have their PTO reduced in whole day increments. If the exempt employee is slotted to work 8 hours and only works 3 hours, the exempt employee must be paid for the full day.  

Employers should double check that in their state mandating the use of sick time does not violate state specific sick-leave requirements. Some state specific sick leave laws may not allow employers to mandate employees use sick time; if this is the case in your state, you can mandate the use of sick time so long as it is over and beyond the state legally mandated amount.


The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires employers to keep all medical information about employees confidential–even if that information is not about a disability. Clearly, the information that an employee has symptoms of, or a diagnosis of, COVID-19, is medical information. But manager should still report the illness to appropriate employer officials so that they can take actions consistent with guidance from the CDC and other public health authorities.

The ADA does not interfere with a designated representative of the employer interviewing the infected employee to get a list of people with whom the employee possibly had contact at work, so that the employer can then take action to notify those who may have come into contact with the employee, without revealing the employee’s identity. For example, using a generic descriptor, such as telling employees that “someone at this location” or “someone on the fourth floor” has COVID-19, provides notice and does not violate the ADA’s prohibition of disclosure of confidential medical information.

For small employers, coworkers might be able to surmise who the employee is, but such employers still have the right to make this limited disclosure.   Also, all employer officials who are designated as needing to know the identity of an infected employee should be specifically instructed that they must maintain the confidentiality of this information.


The ADA is a federal law that requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees and applicants with disabilities, unless they create an undue hardship. Most states have a similar law with similar obligations.

As it relates to COVID-19, there are many accommodations that could be requested. They can generally be divided into three main categories:

  1. The employee is requesting an accommodation for their COVID-19 illness;
  2. The employee is requesting an accommodation for a non-COVID-19 disability because of a COVID-19 surge; and
  3. The employee is requesting an accommodation for their family member.

An employee requests an accommodation for their COVID-19 illness:

Employees requesting accommodations for their own COVID-19 related illness are likely not able to take advantage of the formal accommodation process under the ADA because COVID-19 is typically not considered a disability. Nonetheless, COVID-19 may occasionally rise to the level of a disability if the employee’s medical condition or any of their symptoms is a “physical or mental” impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The EEOC advises that:

“An individual who is diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences congestion, sore throat, fever, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal discomfort, which resolve within several weeks, but experiences no further symptoms or effects, is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is so even though this person is subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.”

In contrast, Long COVID is likely a disability under the ADA. Long COVID (or long-haul COVID) is a group of health problems persisting or developing after an initial COVID-19 infection. Symptoms can last weeks, months or years and are often debilitating. Long COVID is considered a disability under the ADA and, therefore, requires formal accommodations under the ADA.
Employees requesting accommodations for Long COVID should be treated as any other qualified employee requesting accommodations.
An employee requesting accommodations for a non-COVID disability because of a COVID-19 surge:

Employees with disabilities may request accommodations because they have a non-COVID related disability that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19 or makes the recommended preventive steps (such as masks) untenable for medical reasons. For example, employees undergoing chemo may request an accommodation during a surge because the chemotherapy makes them more susceptible to serious sickness. Individuals with an otherwise eligible disability can request accommodations in this scenario.
An employee is requesting accommodations for a family member:

The ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability. This protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment claims. The ADA does not require an employer to accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom the employee is associated. So, if an employee requests an accommodation because a family member is very susceptible to COVID-19, the employer has no obligation to grant that request.


  • Sign up for Email Updates from the CDC so you are up to date on all of the CDC’s COVID-19 recommendations;
  • Update your company handbook so it includes provisions on mandated use of PTO time and other COVID-19 related policies;
  • Discuss with your management team how you want to handle issues around COVID-19 isolation, work from home, and mandated sick time policies;
  • Know state and local laws, emergency orders, and ordinances relating to COVID-19; and
  • Sign up for legal updates (such as the Brody and Associates Monthly Legal Update) that will help keep you abreast of these developments.