When your employee or coworker calls to let you know he tested positive for COVID-19, you respond immediately with sympathy and worry, and then spring into action and offer what help you can. If you are his employer, you tell your employee to take care of himself, let him know you can provide two weeks of paid leave and reassure him you will hold his job for him. If you are his coworker, you offer to drop off groceries or whatever else he needs on his porch. You wonder if you are infected and have brought COVID-19 home to your family.
If you are the employer, you notify your other employees, many of whom are frightened; some say you should have done more to protect them. Depending on their level of contact, you let them know whether they need to get tested. You notify any customers and let them know you will keep them informed; you know you will lose some of them. You call a cleaning firm and ask them to come as soon as possible. If you are a coworker, you immediately step up your personal sanitizing precautions to safeguard your family.
If you are the employer, only later do you remember to ask your employee to send you his medical paperwork. When he does, you notice something odd about the medical provider’s letterhead. If your company has been swimming upstream against the rapids, what you learn after that may knock you sideways a second time.
In April, the FBI warned employers to be alert for employees who submit fraudulent COVID-19 claims. The FBI warning described a Fortune 500 manufacturing facility worker who faked a positive COVID-19 test result. As a result, his employer shut down their facility and suffered a $175,000 productivity loss. One of the employee’s coworkers lost money as well, because he paid for a rental property to self-quarantine himself so he could safeguard his family.
In a similar case, police in in South Carolina cited an employee who submitted fake documentation to his employer, resulting in his employer’s call center being shut down for five days to disinfect the facility. And in Toronto, an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee submitted a fake doctor’s note, resulting in her coworkers’ isolating. Her restaurant had to be sanitized and was closed for several days.
Here’s the new, unexpected challenge — How do employers protect themselves and their employees from both COVID-19 and the stray coworker who selfishly and falsely claims COVID-19? First, employers need to continue placing safety first. If an employee says he has tested positive for COVID-19, send him and others who’ve been in contact with him home. Close your workplace until you can ensure it has been fully disinfected.
Second, examine the documents your employee provides, and if you have questions contact the medical provider listed to confirm their legitimacy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially asked employers to eliminate barriers that might prevent infected employees from remaining home by not requiring sick employees to provide a COVID-19 test result or health care provider’s note to validate their illness and qualify for sick leave, but an employee who has tested positive can generally produce documentation. Further, employers can require documentation confirming the employee’s need for paid time off or leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or FFCRA. Employers may later require their employees to provide medical documentation of his COVID-19-free status.
Next, while you don’t want to punish an employee who genuinely fears he has COVID-19, because you want them to remain home to heal and to protect your other employees, you need to ensure that your leave policies include rules outlining the consequences for providing false documentation. These policies would allow you to fire an employee who knowingly falsely reports he has COVID-19.