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The Implications of Ebola for the Workforce

12.2.14

Peter Gillespie was quoted in Risk Management on December 2, 2014. The article “The Implications of Ebola for the Workforce” discussed how 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.

Peter was quoted on how these “precautions” have impacted 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. 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, Peter 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. Peter 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,” Peter explained.

While the threat of Ebola has caused alarm, Peter warned that a bigger threat to the workplace is the far more prevalent and contagious seasonal flu. An estimated 5% to 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications, according to the CDC. Older adults, especially those 65 and over, make up 60% of annual flu-related hospitalizations and about 90% of flu-related deaths.

“Risk managers and employees concerned about whether this could happen in their workplace should be reminded to take basic steps,” Peter said. “If you are in an area susceptible to seasonal flus, wash your hands, make sure you are feeling okay and that you are doing what you can to prevent the spread of the common cold and flu within the workplace.”

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