Coronavirus: Making workplaces safe for employees could be challenging due to privacy concerns

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Making offices and stores safe for employees to return will be challenging due to privacy concerns.

Reopening any business or office, from small to large, is going to involve new procedures. Some may seem deeply personal but it's all part of making the workplace safe.

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It might be a simple questionnaire. Possibly a temperature check. In this era of privacy concerns, companies are turning to consultants and legal experts to determine what questions they can ask.

"The employer can ask certain questions but would not necessarily be entitled to ask more than is needed to make the appropriate determination," said Hilary Wandall, senior vice president & general counsel at San Francisco's TrustArc.

Screening is important to determine if an employee and visitors alike have been ill or have been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus. It may seem invasive, but the goal is to minimize the risk of spreading infections at work. Labor groups have been collaborating with employers on these protocols.

"We want to work with employers and work with health officials to ensure that the workplaces are safe, and part of the way to do that is with appropriate screening," said Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council.

Health officials have identified that people with underlying conditions are at greater risk, conditions such as diabetes and compromised immune systems. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, accommodations must be made. But can an employer ask you if you're at risk?

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"It's a violation of their privacy to ask any employee very specific questions about their health," said Lori Costanzo. "If the employee wants to volunteer that information, that's a different story."

Costanzo is an employee advocate and attorney in San Jose. She and others say it's a balancing act to make the workplace safe and to accommodate those with special needs without violating their privacy.

Both employers and employees have rights, but if they end up on a collision course, Costanzo thinks workers may have an advantage.

"I think the courts and the juries, in particular, are going to be very different moving forward, having gone through this," she said. "And I think they're going to be very sympathetic to employees who may have been forced to work in unsafe conditions."

Contact tracing is a new area that also has privacy concerns. That's when mobile phones can be used to track who you've interacted with who might be infected. That kind of data privacy is still being debated.

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