As Businesses Reopen, Workplace Testing Is the ‘Wild West’

By: - June 8, 2020 12:00 am

Wulmer Hernandez self-administers a nasal swab as part of a screening for coronavirus at a portable testing site for maritime workers at Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle. Employers have been left to fend for themselves as state and federal governments have offered little guidance or coordination of workplace testing. Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

Testing employees for the coronavirus as they come into work will be an important step in safely getting Americans back on the job. But employers have been left to their own devices as they navigate the public health and legal minefield of creating testing plans for the workplace.

“It’s the Wild West out there when it comes to testing,” said Scott Oswald, managing principal of the Employment Law Group, which specializes in workplace issues. “There really is no standard at all, and employers are left to come up with decisions about testing on their own.”

Public health experts agree the lack of guidance has left businessowners in a difficult situation. 

“Because we do not have a federal response, it undermines the ability of businesses to predict how and when and where to do [testing],” said Dr. Ingrid Katz, an infectious disease specialist at the Harvard Global Health Institute.

“As businesses try to reopen, there will be increasing shortages of the testing that is available,” she said. “If not the federal government, at least states need to create a unified plan for procuring testing and really prioritizing high-risk places like nursing homes.”

Oswald and Katz say they’ve seen little direction from states when it comes to workplace testing. As a result, employers have had to decide whether to test their workers, how often to conduct the tests, where to procure the supplies and how to act on the results. Each step of the process comes with substantial liability, along with the obvious health implications.

In April, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told businesses they could test employees for COVID-19, an exemption from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many companies, such as Amazon and Ford Motor Co., already are providing some testing for some workers. But given the lack of a coordinated system, that may only exacerbate the problem.

“Employers are now competing with hospitals, they’re competing with states, competing with the federal government for tests,” Oswald said. “Employers are willing to pay more, so you’ve got suppliers that say, ‘Amazon’s willing to pay me X amount, either you meet that price or I’m not going to be able to supply it to you.’”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has called for regular workplace testing “across all industries,” but Amazon did not respond to Stateline questions about its testing strategy.

Many small businesses are playing a “waiting game” as uncertainty lingers around workplace testing, said officials at Paycor, a nationwide human resources payroll and software company. Larger, better-connected employers may have more resources to set up a testing plan, the company said.

Story continues after map

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.