According to Evelyn Harmon, Whole Life Dental's human resources director and the wife of practice clinician Ben Dunlap, DMD, it is believed the employees exposed themselves to the virus by going on a girls' trip to the beach and then piling into a car together to get lunch on another day. Others at the practice who didn't go on these excursions have tested negative, she said.
This article has stirred plenty of discussion on social media and in my inbox about what power dentists have to limit what employees do after hours during a pandemic. The case has also served as a reminder that what happens after hours can affect business hours as well.
And the South Carolina practice isn't the only one going through this dilemma. A pediatric practice in Wichita Falls, TX, closed for two weeks after two of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. The practice sent out a statement about the situation. It's unclear where those employees contracted the virus, and attempts to reach the practice were unsuccessful as of press time.
With all of this in the news, it begs the following question: Can dentists ask their team members to protect themselves in order to protect the business? I put that question to Tim Twigg of Bent Ericksen & Assoc., a company that specializes in employment compliance and human relations and is very active in the dental industry.
"The bottom line is this: Employers do not have and cannot control what employees do on/with their off hours or outside of work," Twigg said. "The only place where an employer has some 'sway' is if the activity/action jeopardizes or harms the practice's reputation in some way. And becoming infected with COVID-19 does not rise to that.
"Attempting to put some type of control over the employee's off-hours or trying to put some type of draconian measures in place is not only illegal, but it would also potentially foster people lying about what they are going to do or did."
So what can dentists do when it comes to discussing off-hours activities with their team and corresponding COVID-19 safety measures?
"An employer can certainly ask, encourage, request, and/or suggest that employees practice social distancing, wear masks, and otherwise do all they can to avoid exposure and/or infection, for the good of themselves, their families, their co-workers, and the patients, i.e., the practice," Twigg said. "But an employer cannot take some punitive or adverse action against the employee."
I also asked Twigg what happens for the practice when an employee thinks he or she may be infected and needs to take measures to quarantine.
"If the dentist tells (or orders) the employee to get tested and stay away until the results come back and/or self-quarantine, then the dentist must pay for the test and the time not working," Twigg said. "The paid time, however, can be reimbursed through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)."
Twigg and his team at Bent Ericksen & Assoc. have compiled a guide called "HR Considerations for Handling Employee Sickness Post-COVID-19: A How-To Guide." It is designed to help practitioners navigate through the issues of employees being exposed and/or infected.
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