Benefits

When Ebola Impacts Your Workplace

By Jon Hyman

Oct. 16, 2014

If you employ people at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Frontier Airlines in Cleveland, or Kent State University, congratulations, you’re among the first non-healthcare employers to have a potential Ebola exposure. Now, what do you do?

First things first, don’t panic. Instead, take a deep breath … and think.

Employers must consider what they should do in the event that an employee is potentially exposed to the virus, or otherwise has been in a high risk area. The definition of “high risk area” is very much in flux. Two week ago, it was Western Africa. Last week, the definition expanded to a Dallas hospital. Now, it’s Cleveland’s airport, a local university, and a couple of our local hospitals.

So, what do you do?

1. Have an action plan for disease prevention. This plan could include action items such as travel restriction to high risk areas, and providing information and training to employees, along with protective gear or hand sanitizer.

2. Have a response plan for specific employees who are suspected to, or actually do, pose a risk to others because of a viral exposure. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers have certain limits on their ability to ask medically-related questions, even when dealing with something as critical as Ebola.

  • Questions about travel are not disability-related. Therefore, the ADA places no limits on an employer’s ability to inquire about an employee’s travel to gauge potential exposure and risks.

  • Questions about diseases or exposure thereto are, however, disability-related. The ADA  does permit an employer to request medical information when the employer has  a reasonable belief that an employee will pose a “direct threat” because of  a medical condition. A potential exposure to Ebola could constitute a direct threat, though employers must be careful to avoid unlawful stereotypes or generalizations, as opposed to acting on actual, objective evidence.
  • The Centers for Disease Control has published monitoring guidelines for individuals who have traveled to a country experiencing an Ebola outbreak, or otherwise have been potentially exposed to the disease. These guidelines depend on exposure levels and visible symptoms.

    • Individuals who exhibit symptoms consistent with Ebola, or who develop Ebola-like symptoms at work, should seek medical evaluation, regardless of any known exposure, and should limit activities and contact with others until medically cleared.

    • Asymptomatic individuals who have had no known exposure should self-monitor for symptoms for a 21-day period (the known incubation period for the disease). During that time the CDC recommends that an individual “may continue normal activities, including work.” 

    • Asymptomatic individuals who report possible contact with an infected individual should stay home until medically cleared to return to work. While an employer is not required to pay the employee for this time off, under the circumstances it would be an appropriate gesture. By way of example, both the Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth are paying the 13 nurses who flew from Dallas for their quarantined time off.

There is a big difference between vigilance and panic. The key for employers in dealing with Ebola is to understand the former while not falling susceptible to the latter.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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