As we begin to return to work, if an employee is out of the office due to sickness, can we ask them about their symptoms?
Yes, but there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. In non-pandemic circumstances, employers shouldn’t ask about an employee’s symptoms, as that could be construed as a disability-related inquiry. Under the circumstances, however — and in line with an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace — it is recommended that employers ask specifically about the symptoms of COVID-19.
Here is a suggested communication: “Thank you for staying home while sick. In the interest of keeping all employees as safe as possible, we’d like to know if you are having any of the symptoms of COVID-19. Are you experiencing a fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, or a new loss of taste or smell?”
Remember that medical information must be kept confidential as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the employee does reveal that they have symptoms of COVID-19, or has a confirmed case, the CDC recommends informing the employee’s co-workers of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace (but not naming the employee who has or might have it) and directing them to self-monitor for symptoms. Employers should also follow CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfecting.