There was an interesting and potentially useful article that appeared in the July 14th issue of Dentistry IQ. Thumbnail recap: two HR professionals fielded a question about dentist-owners’ potential liability and responsibility when an employee takes a vacation and then returns to work.
Sounds innocuous enough, but if that vacation was out of state or to an identified COVID-19 “hotspot,” the question is whether or not to require a 14-day quarantine before allowing the employee to return to work.
Keep in mind that local exposure is also an issue; contracting the virus isn’t isolated to hotspots. Even “stay-cations” where the employee is out and about while unprotected, are a potential hazard.
The HR professionals stated clearly that dentist-owners are not responsible for the actions of employees while they’re on their own time, including vacations. With that said, the dentist-owner is responsible for taking all appropriate precautions to safeguard the health of staff and patients.
Clear As Mud
This seems to be a legally gray area; as usual, the laws take a while to catch up to reality. The prudent thing seems to be to require one of two things; a negative COVID-19 test before returning to work, or a 14-day quarantine period.
Whether the dentist-owner or the employee would be responsible for paying for a test isn’t clear. If you’re looking at requiring a test for all returning staff, be prepared to pay. If the employee volunteers to be tested, payment can be subject to negotiation.
Clearly, two-week quarantines of team members are disruptive to the operation of a dental practice. In an ideal world, that would make the test the more attractive option. As of this writing, however, diagnostic testing is lagging up to two weeks behind, and there’s no strong indication that the situation is going to improve any time soon.
As well, it takes some days in most cases before enough of the virus is present to yield positive results. An employee could test negative the day before they returned to work, but still be infected.
In the absence of relatively quick test results, quarantine would seem to be the preferred option. But that’s going to hamstring your practice.
You could institute a blanket policy barring vacations during the pandemic, but the impact on morale will be severe. And, you might well have to pay the employee for unused vacation time.
How About Door Number 3?
When the testing situation improves – and it will, eventually – requiring regular ongoing virus testing is probably the best option. Combined with the PPE and decontamination/sterilization procedures you already have in place, regular testing provides the best chance of early detection of infected staff members while limiting potential cross-infection of coworkers and staff.
If you have an attorney for the practice, or a private attorney, you might consider posing this issue to them. State laws vary, and what works best in one state won’t necessarily apply to you and your situation.
The bottom line right now seems to be: be prudent, be cautious, and follow all your county, state, and CDC guidelines and requirements. From both a legal and moral perspective, it’s the right thing to do.
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