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Privacy Tech | Vendor seeks to balance workplace safety, employee privacy during COVID-19 pandemic Related reading: OSHA revises guidance on tracking COVID-19 in the workplace




Evident closed its offices in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the vendor's best efforts to keep staff safe, employees still came down with the virus, which frustrated Evident CEO David Thomas.

"As a business leader, I feel burned that we didn’t have the right data that I needed to make effective decisions, and some of my employees got sick as a result," Thomas said.

As companies gradually allow employees to return to the workplace, Thomas does not want them to be unprepared in the event a staff member comes down with COVID-19. He also knows to disclose such information has the potential to be a privacy minefield.

The vendor hopes it can strike a balance between workplace safety and employee privacy with its recently released COVID Health Status offering. 

The tool allows employees and employers to communicate with one another about staff members' health. Should an employer make a request for an employee's health information, the staff member is given the choice to link their health records via Evident's regular application. After an employee connects to their health care provider, the information is downloaded onto their phone and sent to their employer.

Thomas said Evident placed an emphasis on data minimization to ensure employers are only given the information they need to stay on top of any given situation.

"Communication not only involves asking the employee how they feel, but also connecting to that employee’s health records to pull back relevant information about testing or other conditions that are relevant to COVID," Thomas said. "Our system then minimizes the information that goes back to the employer. The employer is getting authoritative, helpful information, but they are getting it in a way that doesn’t expose them to all of the privacy concerns that they would have in viewing an entire health record."

The emphasis on data minimization is one Thomas believes is crucial not only for the success of this offering, but also for all privacy technology solutions. Anyone who does not feel their data is not properly protected within a tool will simply not use it, Thomas said.

"You have to be able to convince people that their data is being handled in a safe, secure and privacy-enhancing way to get them to use it in the first place," Thomas said. "Not only is it important for employers to meet their regulatory obligations to the (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) requirements and any new laws that Congress passes, but if you really want your employees to actually use it, which is the only time it is going to be valuable, you also have to convince them that it is taking good care of their privacy."

Employers and human resources professionals view the information on a dashboard, which lists out each employee whose health information has been requested. The dashboard provides a risk score based on the answers received from staff members and available health records. 

With all this information at their fingertips, employers will have to wrestle with a challenging situation. In the event of an employee coming down with COVID-19, an organization must balance keeping the rest of the workforce safe without explicitly announcing who came down with the virus.

When faced with this dilemma, Thomas recommends looking to available guidance as they examine their options and acknowledged it is a scenario Evident is still working on itself.

"I think that companies have to look to regulatory guidance and if that regulatory guidance says that you can ask certain questions about employees’ health during a pandemic, that information still has to be treated as protected health records and that it can’t be shared in any way," Thomas said. "As unprecedented of a situation as we are in, employers should look to that guidance and follow that guidance and not deviate from it."

The circumstances around the pandemic will likely continue to evolve, and to prepare for any new turns, Evident set up an advisory board to inform the future direction of the tool. The board is made up of privacy professionals, human resource officials and medical professionals. One of the members of the latter group is a New York City doctor who has been fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines. Thomas said the doctor has been informing Evident and the board of what he has seen treating the illness, and that the feedback has instrumental in the development of the solution.

Thomas said the formation of the board is one example of Evident's commitment to the development of the offering as a potential long-term solution, as the timeline for the pandemic continues to remain shrouded in the unknown.

"We don’t have a crystal ball, just like no one else has a crystal ball," Thomas said. "We are absolutely treating this like it’s going to be with us for 12 to 24 months or longer. This exchange of sensitive health information is going to be an important factor in how companies and society will operate over the next 12 to 24 months."

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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