As states’ stay-at-home orders lift, some nonessential workers lucky enough to work from home may continue doing so—Twitter recently announced that employees can work from home as long as they want, and Google and Facebook say employees will be able to work from home until at least 2021. But others are faced with the reality of returning to the workplace.
That influx of workers puts more people in contact with one another, especially in the service industry. Some workers are nervous that going back to work means they could be exposed to the virus; for instance, barbers and salon workers in Washington have started a petition asking the governor to reclassify salons from “Phase 2” businesses (which may open as soon as early June) to Phase 4, which would be at least eight weeks away.
In hopes of getting ahead of the spread, businesses and institutions are rolling out their own policies to keep workers or customers safe. Some focus on hygiene—mandating mask wearing, making hand sanitizer more easily available—but others focus on something trickier: people’s word. Increasingly, institutions are rolling out policies that require workers to self-certify that they are not sick with COVID-19. How these policies work gives a glimpse into the challenges of resuming work, and how those challenges may be amplified for workers with fewer benefits available to them.
Lyft, for instance, recently rolled out its Health Safety Program, which prompts app users—drivers and passengers alike—to agree to a “health safety commitment.” It requires them to leave the front seat empty, open windows when possible—and swear they don’t have COVID-19 or related symptoms. Drivers must renew their agreement at the start of each day, or every 18 hours, and riders must do so weekly. Those who don’t agree to the commitment are not able to ride or drive with Lyft.
The University of Washington has implemented a similar policy, which requires all employees reporting to work on campus to sign a COVID “self-attestation.” (Disclosure: I’m currently teaching a course at UW, but this policy does not apply to me because, like many instructors, I am teaching exclusively online.) The university’s example attestation asks employees whether they’ve experienced specific symptoms, like fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and chills. Employees must fill out the attestation any day they’ll be on campus, and anyone who reports symptoms must stay home.
As parts of the U.S. attempt to return to business as usual, these self-certifications may move beyond the workplace. With few national guidelines about safe behavior right now, it might become more common to see policies requiring people to declare they’re COVID-free before they can enter or willing to abide by that institution’s coronavirus policies. Some may be used just to set the tone for acceptable behavior; for instance, a Seattle farmer’s market asked attendees to take an “oath” online for being a “responsible market shopper and example for all” before showing up in person. That oath included check boxes for things like “I will STAY HOME if I am sick or if I have been in contact with someone who is sick,” “wear a face covering,” and “cover my cough or sneeze with a tissue, then dispose of it. Then wash my hands.”
Melissa Healy, a labor and employment lawyer, says she’s seen these self-attestations become prevalent because they serve as a “middle ground” for employers who want to prevent spread without implementing complicated and invasive procedures. “It’s not always feasible or practical to take employees’ temperature, for instance—and do you pay people while they’re waiting to have their temperature taken?” she says. “And there are company morale barriers, too, like who’s going to take that temperature?” That opens up even more questions: How should companies store that personal medical info if they collect it? Asking employees about their symptoms sidesteps a lot of those difficult questions.
The downside: These certifications are more prone to judgment errors than a temperature reading or a full COVID test. Imagine you’re a worker asked to fill out a form pinky-swearing you aren’t sick before you head off to work. Perhaps these prompts will encourage you to think twice; maybe you thought those mild muscle aches you had were the result of yesterday’s tough workout but now realize it could be a COVID symptom and decide it’s best to stay home. But there are other incentives at play here. If you desperately need the money, how likely are you to admit to those muscle aches, knowing that means you can’t work?
Your answer might vary depending on what happens when you tell the truth. Employees’ word is only as good as the incentives you give them to be honest. UW has instituted a host of COVID emergency leave policies to make it easier for employees to get paid if they do get sick and need to take time off. Those extend to hourly employees, for whom showing up is directly correlated with their paycheck. Most Lyft drivers, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of paid time off. Lyft is providing funds to drivers who have tested positive for COVID or have been ordered by public health officials to quarantine, so just experiencing symptoms would not qualify a driver to receive those funds. (Drivers have also told CNET that getting that money is an opaque and laborious process.)
Trying to convince people not to come to work sick is one thing; making sure they don’t come back before they’ve recovered is another. Employers will need frameworks in place to determine when people can safely work again. Geoff Gottlieb, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington and the interim chair of UW’s Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases, says the university has been working on clear messaging encouraging people not only to stay home when they’re sick but also contact their supervisor for guidance as well as their health care provider for next steps. “The university has set up several rapid testing sites so we can facilitate our community members getting rapid COVID testing, typically with results back in less than a day,” says Gottlieb. UW keeps a record of all attestations submitted by employees and says they have been working closely with local and state public health agencies to make sure their data collection and storage comply with legal statutes.
I asked Lyft to clarify how soon drivers could return to work if they had previously declined to accept the company’s health safety commitment; the Lyft representative said the company does not track which items drivers decline to check on the commitment and reiterated the company’s policy to prompt users to fill out the commitment every 18 hours. From that, it sounds like you could, theoretically, log on the day after you report symptoms and start driving again. But Lyft takes the position that its workers are not employees, just contractors, which means they don’t have benefits. Gig workers often lack the resources to get tested for COVID, which is the kind of information you’d want in determining whether it’s safe to work again—and, unfortunately, what they need to qualify for COVID pay from Lyft. (Even if drivers are able to get tested, they are certainly unlikely to access the kind of expedited testing UW provides for its employees, which means they’ll likely have to wait days to apply for Lyft funds or head back to work.)
The long-term legal ramifications of these self-certifications is not yet clear. Jeana Wines, a workers’ compensation attorney, says she thinks that these policies come from a desire to create a safe workspace but that companies could perhaps also use them to “cover their tail where occupational safety regulations are concerned.” (The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, recommends employers develop policies that allow for “prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals,” and to “inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.”) If workers do get sick on the job, employees should have access to workers’ compensation benefits, but gig economy “contractors” may not, unless they purchase it on their own. Their recourse could be to file a civil suit against companies for exposure to COVID on the job; in that case, companies might bring up these certifications as a defense. “They could use it as part of any case where they were trying to paint a picture that they created a safe work environment and did everything they could,” says Wines.
If these self-certifications prevent obviously sick people from going to work or other public places, that’s a definite win. But another important wrinkle in the effectiveness of these self-certifications is that even if people have not experienced symptoms, they could be carrying the virus. “We know from emerging data that there are a significant number of people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic,” says Gottlieb. “Attestation is only one piece of the puzzle to keep our community safe.” Without enforcing other policies to promote health and safety, signing a form is little more than an empty gesture.
To that end, the University of Washington is mandating physical distancing for employees who must report in to work, mask-wearing rules, and lots of cleaning and disinfecting. Lyft has implemented similar policies—it’s hard to distance in a car, but the company no longer allows riders in cars’ front seats and requires that users open the window when possible and wear a mask. Whether these measures are mere pandemic theater is unclear—but for now, they’re all we have as cities prepare to reopen.