The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) situation is developing very rapidly. Therefore, employers should monitor the resources cited below for the latest developments, and legal guidance may continue to develop or change depending on future health authority, or regulatory agency guidance. For international developments, employers may wish to regularly check the World Health Organization website. For information about developments in Germany, employers should check the website of the Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Ministry of Health or the Robert Koch Institute (German Government Biomedical Agency).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are currently 45,1714 (status: February 12, 2020) confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV in 25 countries, 16 of which have been confirmed in Germany. The German Federal Foreign Office warns against travelling to Hubei province and recommends refraining from unnecessary travel to the rest of the People’s Republic of China until further notice.
German citizens locked out in Wuhan have recently been repatriated by the German government. The evacuees have been immediately put in a quarantine for 14 days.
The headquarters of an affected German Bavarian automotive supplier was temporarily closed, travel to national and international locations was discontinued and employees were requested to have themselves examined after an infection of one employee had been confirmed.
Business Travel to China
While many air carriers have suspended any passenger flights to and from China, no entry stop from China has been imposed in Germany and there are still passenger flights between Germany and China.
Employers are obliged to protect their employees’ health and to avoid risks. Accordingly, employers cannot enforce and should prohibit any business travel to regions for which an official travel warning exists, e.g. the Hubei province. Any business travel to other regions in China should be restricted to an utmost minimum. Most companies have in the meantime suspended business travel to China. If business travel to China cannot be avoided or employees are currently in China, employers should take the following measures:
- Regular monitoring of travel warnings by the German Federal Foreign Office.
- Request employees to register with the crisis prevention list of the Federal Foreign Office.
- Information of the employees of the risks of an infection, symptoms and preventive measures based on the information provided by the Federal Foreign Office (Merkblatt nCoV) the WHO and the Robert-Koch-Institute-RKI. In particular, in risk areas employees should be requested to wear masks and restrict interactions with persons. The latter can be supported by the employer by organizing transportation to avoid public transport or accommodation near the place of work.
- Request employees to report symptoms of 2019-nCoV (fever, cough, shortness of breath) or contact with infected persons and to seek for medical advice.
- Request employee to keep contact with airline as schedules may change.
- Keep regular contact with the employee.
If employees are currently on a business trip in the Hubei province, employers should organize their return to Germany as quickly as possible and liaise with the German Foreign Office in this regard.
Private travel to China
While employers can certainly not prohibit any private trips to China, they should request employees to report such trips as well as any contact with infected persons.
Measures for employees returning from China
Employees returning from the affected region or those who have been in contact with an infected person should be requested to undergo an immediate medical examination. In case of the latter, health authorities should be involved. Furthermore, employers should request returning employees to work from home for a period of 14 days after their return and to refrain from any physical business meeting during that time. Instead, communication should be restricted to virtual meetings or telephone conferences. In case employees cannot work from home, they should be released for a 14-day period from the obligation to work. During that time, they remain entitled to their remuneration.
Furthermore, employers should instruct employees to abide strictly by any given medical advice, to pay closely attention to their health and the health of persons living in the same household. If they develop any symptoms, they should be advised to seek immediate medical advice.
It is doubtful whether employees returning from a region, that is not affected can also be obliged to work from home or released from the obligation to work. As a matter of precaution, many companies practice this already and it is advisable to do this as a matter of precaution.
Measures in case of (suspected) infection, involvement of authorities
In case an employee is infected, companies should involve the health authorities immediately. According to the Infection Protection Act (IFSG), the “coronavirus” is a disease that has to be reported to the disease control authority; this also applies to suspected cases. The respective physician must submit a report to the responsible health authority. The health authority can impose measures against sick, suspected sick or suspected infected persons that range from monitoring, quarantine and the prohibition to exercise professional activities in order to prevent the virus from spreading (secs. 30, 31 of the German Infection Protection Act – IFSG). If the authority imposes a prohibition to work, sec. 56 of the Infection Protection Act provides for a claim for compensation for the person concerned.
Any employer has a general ancillary duty vis-s-vis its employees to take preventive measures and to minimize risks. Accordingly, measures to avoid a potential risk of infection should be taken. The concrete measures depend on the specific situation and could be e.g.
- Information on the observance of hygiene rules (no handshakes, frequent disinfecting and washing of hands)
- Information on symptoms of 2019-nCoV
- Monitoring of business travels and identification of risk groups
- Restrictions for physical meetings, use of virtual meetings
- Home-office arrangements, garden leave
Furthermore, in particular larger companies or companies with frequently travelling employees may consider engaging medical advisors to develop a prevention and emergency concept.