Law mostly silent on employer COVID reporting

published in The Oklahoman | July 21, 2020

Labor and employment attorney Charlie Plumb was interviewed for an article by The Oklahoman writer Dale Denwalt about what mandatory reporting obligations, if any, an employer has when one of its employees tests positive for COVID-19.  As it turns out, there are currently no state or federal regulations requiring employers to notify health authorities of sick employees.  The only exception, which is very narrow, comes from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which requires employers to report cases only when it’s clear to the employer that employee’s exposure to the coronavirus was work-related.

In the absence of mandatory requirements, and to put themselves in the best position to defend against any allegations of negligent, inappropriate or unlawful behavior, Plumb said that employers should comply with health and safety guidelines from health authorities, like the Centers for Disease Control.  Lawsuits are likely, but a new Oklahoma state law that went into effect in late May will provide businesses that follow recommended guidelines a shield from certain claims of civil liability related to alleged exposure or potential exposure.

Plumb also acknowledged that while balancing individual privacy concerns with the safety needs of the workplace can be tricky, employers should follow Oklahoma Department of Health recommendations and notify workers who may have been exposure to a co-worker who has tested positive.

“It’s very unlikely that an employer is going to be liable or criticized for violating confidentiality if they’re doing exactly what the Department of Health instructed them to do,” said Plumb.  “I would rather, as an employer, deal with someone accusing me of somehow violating confidentiality than deal with a huge outbreak of COVID-19 among my employees and their families.”