COVID-19 Balancing public health and privacy of employees

In this unprecedented situation of COVID-19 outbreak, when most of Europe is immobilized, along with uncertainties about your business continuity, as an employer you are also responsible for the health of your employees.

In an effort to protect your business environment and your employees from Coronavirus infection, you are compelled to implement different measures, and some of them will undoubtedly involve collecting personal information from your employees that you wouldn’t collect otherwise.

You might find out that some of your employees are positive to Coronavirus, or in immediate contact with someone who is, and it is important to know which information you should disclose, to whom, and what is considered too extensive.

Businesses will have to balance the privacy of the affected employee and, not only the health of the rest of the staff, but the health of a community!

We have discussed EU guidelines on the processing of personal data in the case of COVID-19 and obligations of the employer during the COVID-19 in our blog How will Coronavirus affect your privacy, so be sure to check it out.

Guidelines for businesses in response to Coronavirus outbreak

In different countries worldwide, guidelines for businesses were issued in response to Coronavirus outbreak and we advise you to explore those guidelines in detail.

Guidelines are aimed at minimizing and preventing exposure to the virus and mostly focused on maintaining a healthy work environment, educating employees on how to reduce the spread, and giving recommendations for social distancing.

Guidelines from credible sources are based on current information on COVID-19, in your own country, which is important because the situation can be more difficult in some countries, like Italy, and therefore stricter measures can be applied.

For example; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or COVID-19: guidance for employees, employers and businesses.

Data Protection Guidelines for businesses in response to Coronavirus outbreak

In order to keep your workplace safe, you are obligated to collect and, if necessary, disclose sensitive personal information about the health status of your employees. However, you should do so with data protection principles in mind.

As we mentioned in our blog How will Coronavirus affect your privacy, although the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protects individuals’ rights, it also predicts situations in which such rights can be restricted, for the sake of protection of vital interest, such as public health.

For this purpose, National Data Protection Authorities (DPA) have issued guidelines for processing employees’ sensitive personal data, and we will focus on those guidelines with an emphasis on steps employers can take in case of a Coronavirus outbreak in their workspace.

Check with your national Data Protection Authority website for more guidelines on personal data processing in case of Coronavirus; UK, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Poland.

1. Inform your staff if an employee may have been exposed to or is infected with COVID-19

If an employee has been exposed to or is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, you are in every right to inform the rest of your staff, even if they are working from home for a while.

It is important to remember that the incubation period of COVID-19 can range from 1- 14 days according to the World Health Organization. Meaning symptoms can develop later on, or sometimes not at all. If a person does not show symptoms, an infected individual can still be contagious and endanger older people or people with pre-existing illnesses.

When informing your staff, avoid giving out the name of an employee and do not disclose more information than necessary (data minimization principle).

Even if you are advised to disclose personal information about employee health, avoid stigmatization at the workplace and respect the confidentiality of an employee with confirmed Coronavirus.

2. What if your employee recently traveled to the infected area?

This is now a highly unlikely scenario since most countries have issued a ban on long-distance traveling putting airports and public transportation under lockdown.

However, if for any reason your employee has traveled to one of the high-risk areas in the past 14 days, business-related or in a private capacity, you should advise your employee to call the national public health number dedicated to Coronavirus to get proper instructions, even if the employee does not show symptoms.

Most likely the employee will be sent off to self-isolation for 14 days from the time he or she has left an area with widespread, ongoing infection, immediately.

3. Ask an employee to leave the workplace

If an employee exhibits symptoms of the COVID-19 or the influenza-like illness, you are in full right to ask an employee to leave the workplace and seek medical attention.

You are also encouraged to enable employees to work from home if possible.
Security risks of working from home in the time of COVID-19

If an employee has recently visited some of the high-risk areas, as a precautionary measure you should advise work from home.

4. Collect health data in relation to COVID-19 about employees

Your obligation to protect your employees does not empower you to collect an excessive amount of data about them. You are encouraged to ask employees if they have traveled to a certain country, or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Instruct your employees on numbers to call and measures to take if they are experiencing symptoms or if they have been exposed to COVID-19. This way you will cut yourself out as a middleman and avoid collecting an unnecessary amount of data.

If that’s not enough and you still have to collect health data, do not collect more data than you need and ensure that you use the appropriate safeguards.

5. Share information with public health authorities

If one of your employees is infected with COVID-19, and you are contacted by the public health authorities who are collecting data about individuals’ whereabouts you are allowed to disclose the necessary information to authorities.

Employee obligation in the suspension of COVID-19

Employes also have a responsibility to disclose to the employer if they had contact with infected individuals or if they are experiencing Coronavirus symptoms. This will allow the employer to alert other employees so they can also take preventive measures of self-isolation.

In such a situation employer’s duty is to notify employees of potential exposure to the coronavirus in the workplace.

Conclusion

As an employer you are obligated to provide a safe work environment for your employees, so you are allowed to inform others so appropriate measures of self-isolation can be taken if a coworker has symptoms or tests positive for Coronavirus.

However, disclose only information that is necessary to fulfill a specific purpose, in this case, a task in the public interest.

instructions on how to prevent covid-19