By Ben Foldy and Chip Cutter
With more workers back on the job, companies from clothing retailers to auto makers are increasingly confronting a difficult question: If an employee tests positive for Covid-19, who should be told?
Employers are prohibited by federal law from identifying the infected worker. Beyond that, there is no universal playbook for whether or how confirmed cases should be disclosed and to whom, resulting in a patchwork of approaches that can vary widely even within the same industry. Workers at Volkswagen AG are effectively able to track positive tests among the staff each day while infections at Toyota Motor Corp. plants are kept to a tight circle, the companies say.
The ambiguity has left some workers uneasy about whether the new and relatively untested protocols rushed into place in recent months are actually working, especially when some states are seeing a resurgence in new cases.
"There's no one really correct answer in all this," said Rachel Benton, a worker at a General Motors Co. assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. Management "is not really saying much, to be honest with you, but I don't know how much they can say." GM, which has around 48,000 U.S. factory workers, said when a Covid-19 case is confirmed, the plant's medical department interviews the infected person to identify the most at-risk individuals and instructs them to isolate. The company also notifies the union's shop chair and GM supervisors inform shift workers, a company spokesman said. The spokesman said it believes its protocols are working.
How and whether to disclose positive tests is part of a balancing act confronting employers during the coronavirus pandemic. Companies have had to weigh privacy concerns, legal liability, workplace safety and absenteeism in figuring out everything from when to test employees to what they can ask them about their health or living situations.
At Volkswagen's assembly plant in Tennessee, workers have access through a company app to a detailed daily update of the plant's Covid-19 cases.
There, they can see how many workers have tested positive and negative since the plant reopened in May -- there had been 26 positive tests as of Tuesday, combining both self-reported cases and people tested at work -- and review the outcomes of the company's contact-tracing investigations, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Workers also get information on the newest cases and the steps taken to isolate the people who tested positive.
"If you're transparent with the information then there's no way that people can create a rumor culture," said Thomas du Plessis, the plant's chief executive. "It's worked fantastically."
At Toyota, if managers in the company's U.S. factories learn of a confirmed Covid-19 case, they use contact tracing to identify who may have interacted with the ill employee within the 48 hours prior to the infected person exhibiting symptoms and then notify individuals, the company said.
"Just announcing the number of COVID cases at a given site is not productive," a company spokesman wrote in an email.
Guidelines developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say employers should inform anyone who has come into contact with a worker who has tested positive.
Many employers with more than 10 workers are required to log workplace-related illnesses and injuries -- including Covid-19 -- with OSHA. Any worker can request a copy of the log, which the company must provide by the end of the next business day.
At Patagonia Inc., an employee who thinks they might have been infected sets off a chain reaction. Once a worker notes he or she has had contact with someone who tested positive or is experiencing symptoms, the company will alert others who work near the person, said Dean Carter, the outdoor-clothing company's head of human resources and shared services. If the employee ends up testing positive, "we immediately quarantine the entire group," he said.
Managers call employees who work in the same area as the staffer to let them know they may have been exposed. If the company learns of the positive case while workers are still on the job, they will be sent home. Patagonia then pays to send a medical worker to employees' homes to administer Covid-19 tests and will ask workers to quarantine.
Should someone test positive at technology startup Fast, which reopened its San Francisco headquarters to a small number of employees in recent weeks, the company will notify all employees via Slack and email, and reach out individually to those who may have come in contact with the infected worker, says Chief Executive Domm Holland.
Fast also sends everyone home. The reason: In a small company, with a little more than 30 employees, shutting down the office for everyone avoids having to single people out, Mr. Holland said. "You absolutely aren't going to be shouting about anyone specifically," he said.
At a GM assembly plant in Wentzville, Mo., Glenn Kage, a union official at the roughly 4,150-worker factory, said he learned of five positive cases in four days last month. He shared his concerns with the media that the plant was still operating after the local union had asked that it be temporarily closed for cleaning -- a request the company denied, he said.
Mr. Kage said the company stopped sharing information with him on confirmed cases within the plant for about two weeks. He recently learned of a worker testing positive only through Facebook but said the company has begun confirming new cases with him again.
The GM spokesman declined to comment on specific plants.
Some auto-factory workers infected by the virus are self-reporting their cases via social media.
Jacob Scheeler, a team leader at the GM plant in Spring Hill, tested positive for coronavirus recently after working part of his shift at the plant. He said GM took eight names of people he reported as having the most direct exposure to him, but he felt his job -- which brought him into contact with workers all along the assembly line -- potentially put more people at risk.
He wrote on a Facebook page for the plant's union members: "I tested positive. So please get tested if you know me."
Nora Naughton contributed to this article.
Write to Ben Foldy at Ben.Foldy@wsj.com and Chip Cutter at email@example.com