Magazine article Risk Management

The Implications of Ebola for the Workforce

Magazine article Risk Management

The Implications of Ebola for the Workforce

Article excerpt

As of Nov. 2, there have been almost 5,000 deaths from the Ebola epidemic, primarily in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Overall, more than 13,000 cases of the disease have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

Governments are scrambling to halt the spread of the disease to other countries. So far in the United States, there have been four confirmed cases and one death: A Liberian national died while visiting Texas, while two healthcare workers in Texas who consequently contracted the disease have been declared healthy. In New York, a doctor returning from West Africa was diagnosed with Ebola. He was admitted to Bellevue Hospital on Oct. 23--after riding on the subway, visiting a bowling alley and riding in a taxi, prompting a review of regulations governing those traveling from West Africa. As of Nov. 3 his condition was stable but he remained in isolation.

The heightened fear of a pandemic in the United States has compelled some states to initiate precautions that range from monitoring anyone potentially exposed, to a strict 21-day quarantine.

What does all this mean for organizations and their employees?

"Employers have the right to take steps to protect their workforce from becoming ill and the right to respond to legitimate concerns within the employee population about whether a co-worker could potentially make them sick," said Peter Gillespie, an attorney with labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. He cautioned, however, that companies also need to be aware of employees' rights before taking any actions. "The flip side is that you don't want to ask an employee questions that can't be asked under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This prohibits medical examinations of employees except under certain, limited circumstances."

For example, he said, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that, in the case of asymptomatic employees, even asking to take their temperature would constitute a medical exam. "Employers need to keep in mind that asymptomatic employees do not present a risk for transmission," he said. Gillespie noted that, while companies with employees traveling in Ebola-affected areas need to be vigilant, the disease's spread through travel is not a major concern. Employers would be within their rights, however, to communicate risk factors and concerns to traveling employees.

Under the ADA, for example, it would not be considered a medical evaluation to let employees know the risks of traveling in certain areas. "They say that, if you have eaten locally-prepared bush meat or vegetables, you may be at risk. Employers are permitted within the EEOC guidelines to communicate that sort of information. And to put it back to the employee by saying, 'We need your cooperation to protect your fellow employees from concerns they may have.'"

He also recommended that organizations be vigilant about checking updates from the CDC and the World Health Organization. "EEOC has in their guidelines to follow these experts' guidance. If you pay attention to what they say, that can provide another basis for steps employers can take and be within the law," he explained.

Randy Nomes, executive vice president at Aon Risk Solutions, added that this is a good time for companies to look closely at their crisis communications plans "in terms of how they communicate with employees, what types of travel restrictions and guidance they have on travel. …

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