CDC’s new guidance around COVID-19 contact sends potentially exposed critical employees back to work

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued updated, interim guidance for “critical infrastructure” employees during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that could have big implications for labor groups, gig economy workers and tech company employees. The new guidance relaxes restrictions on employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, focusing on implementing precautionary measures in the workplace rather than sending them home for self-isolation, as was the practice previously.

The CDC’s updated guidelines, which were adapted in order “to ensure continuity of essential functions” according to the agency, state that someone working in an essential capacity who has been potentially exposed (either through contact with a household member with COVID-19, or having come within 6 feet of someone who has a confirmed or suspected case) should remain at work, provided they don’t show any symptoms.

That’s not to say the CDC is advising they carry on as usual: they say that anyone who has had this kind of exposure, should have their temperature taken and their symptoms assessed prior to any shift, and that they should be engage in self-monitoring. They should also wear a mask whenever in their place of employment for at least 14 days following the exposure – including cloth masks where proper face masks aren’t available because of shortages. They should also observe physical distancing from other employees, and all shared use areas and equipment should be regularly cleaned and disinfected.

The CDC further advises that anyone who comes sick during the day should be sent home immediately, and the employer should comply a list of anyone they might’ve been exposed to within two days prior to the symptoms showing up.

These changed rules were mentioned during the White House coronavirus task force briefing on Wednesday, and seem to be considered a necessary step by the agency and the administration to ensure that critical services continue to operate uninterrupted as COVID-19 continues to spread. The guidelines apply not only to full-time employees in essential roles but also to “contracted vendors,” which likely includes Amazon warehouse employees and delivery drivers for services like Instacart and Uber Eats.

The updated guidelines come as a number of labor actions have arisen with contract workers instituting work stoppages, facility closures or job walk-outs to protest COVID-19 working conditions and pay.