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Keeping Farm & Landscape Workers Safe: When Employees are Sick or Exposed to COVID-19

This blog is part of a series focused on keeping agricultural and green industry employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Other blogs in the series cover information employers need to share with employees and steps employers can take to protect employees.

Farm workers and green industry professionals (landscapers, tree trimmers, pesticide/fertilizer applicators, etc.) already face risks from heat illness, equipment injury, agri-chemical exposure, and other workplace hazards.  With the outbreak of COVID-19, they now face an additional risk as they work to produce our food and maintain our urban landscapes.  Some of our local agricultural employers have reached out to UF/IFAS Extension for guidance in keeping their workplaces safe during the pandemic.  Below is a summary of current guidance, based on the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease (accessed April 17, 2020) and Executive Orders issued by Florida Governor DeSantis.  Another very helpful and well-organized manual is OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 (accessed April 17, 2020).  As information about COVID-19 changes frequently, this blog is intended as a basic summary of the major considerations, with links where you can access the most current guidance from the CDC and OSHA.

What if an employee becomes sick or has a sick family member?

The CDC recommends employers encourage employees to notify their supervisor if they are sick or have a family member sick at home with COVID-19.  Employees who have symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath, should stay home.  If an employee shows symptoms at work, they should be separated from other people immediately and sent home.  Employers should review their leave policies to make sure employees are able to stay home when needed.  For more information on employer responsibilities, see Steps Employers Can Take to Protect Workers.

If confirmed that an employee does have COVID-19, the employer should inform other employees that they may have been exposed and provide them with the CDC recommendations for community-related exposure.  When communicating about a potential exposure, employers must be careful to maintain confidentiality required by the ADA.

Employees with a sick family member should take precautions recommended by the CDC.

When can sick employees return to work?

The CDC offers options for determining when a sick person can discontinue isolation:
1) the person was not tested for COVID-19, but a specified amount of time has passed since they have had a fever and first symptoms, and their respiratory symptoms have improved; or
2) the person initially had symptoms, but tested negatively twice in a row, at least 24 hours between tests, does not have a fever, and has had improvement in other symptoms; or
3) the person never had symptoms, but was confirmed by lab test to have COVID-19; in this case, they may discontinue isolation after a specified amount of time, as long as they remain asymptomatic; even after discontinuing isolation, they should wear a face covering and limit contact for a specified period of time.

The CDC states that employers should not require employees to provide test results or a healthcare provider note to prove they are eligible for sick leave or to return to work.  Due to the current strain on the healthcare system, timely validation of illness or recovery may not be feasible.

What if a worker may have been exposed to COVID-19, but is not symptomatic?

Agricultural workers are considered critical infrastructure workers, and therefore, according to interim guidance from the CDC (accessed April 17, 2020), they may be permitted to continue working, even after potential exposure to COVID-19, as long as they are asymptomatic and additional precautions are taken.  Potential exposure means being in household contact or within 6 feet of an individual with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.  The CDC requires precautions be taken to prevent the affected worker from infecting others.

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