Do employers have a general obligation to take measures to protect the workforce?
In most instances, yes. An employer’s duty of care requires the company to take appropriate measures to minimize risks in the workplace. Measures should be tailored to the particular circumstances, such as encouraging employees to work from home, limiting in-person work to essential employees, and sending employees home if there is an outbreak in the office. Local legal requirements on what such measures entail must be followed.
By way of example, in the United Kingdom, an employer can fulfill its health and safety obligations to its employees if it follows the Public Health England guidance. Some UK employers are taking a more conservative approach, although this does not require that other employers do so.
In France, employers must take all necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of their employees, including providing information and preventative guidance (e.g., frequent handwashing and avoiding close contact to anyone with a fever or cough), as well as additional accommodations (e.g., increasing the use of telework and providing disposable masks and other protective products).
Likewise, in Germany, employers must take appropriate steps to minimize risks. Appropriate measures must be taken in areas where the coronavirus has occurred as well as the general workplace. Publicizing specific guidance on rules of conduct relating to the virus, providing disinfectants and encouraging personal hygiene are recommended.
Can an employer prohibit employees from visiting affected areas on vacation or personal time, or for taking part of a mass event outside working hours?
Generally, no. Employers cannot mandate what employees do in their private lives. However, it is usually appropriate for an employer to inform and caution employees on personal travel to affected areas. Employers may be able to ask employees to provide information regarding such personal travel, although an employee is usually not required to provide this information.
Does an employer’s response to the virus implicate any privacy laws or regulations?
It might. Privacy rights are complicated matters for employers and you should consult a privacy lawyer to discuss those issues.
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