It comes as no surprise that employers increasingly find themselves dealing with workplace challenges relating to Ebola. The issues tend to arise in two contexts: How should employers respond to employee concerns, and what steps should employers take to protect their workforce from the Ebola virus?
Responding to employee fears
With the level of media attention, your employees are understandably worried about the potential spread of the disease. Their fears include a concern of contracting Ebola from co-workers, contractors or customers. As with most fears, the most effective response is education. Start with communicating to your employees the basics: Ebola cannot be contracted through airborne transmission, and an infected person must exhibit the symptoms in order for the disease to be transmitted. Acquaint your employees with the actual symptoms of the virus. Keep up with the recommendations made by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and your local health department, and explain to your people that you are staying on top of what prevention and control steps should be taken to keep your workplace healthy. Some fears expressed by employees may seem to you irrational and extreme. Rather than dismissing those fears, take them head-on, again through communication and education. You never know how many of their co-workers share similar “irrational” fears. Encourage employees who have questions to refer to the CDC’s website for answers: www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/about.html. Despite your best efforts, if the workplace fear level continues to rise, consider offering voluntary, confidential screenings for the Ebola virus to employees and family members.
Keep in mind that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) may come into play when you are addressing workplace health issues. Under the ADA, an employer is prevented from asking medical questions or seeking health information unless the employer has a reasonable belief the employee poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others. Employers may ask employees whether they have traveled to locations identified by the CDC as outbreak locations. You may also ask about employees’ potential Ebola exposure during travel, whether the travel is personal or for business purposes. Employees who have been to a location identified by the CDC and who have had contact with an infected person or who exhibit Ebola symptoms may be required to obtain medical clearance before resuming work. For an employee who has traveled to a region experiencing an Ebola outbreak, an employer would not be criticized for seeing that their employee follows the CDC’s recommended monitoring guidelines.
To address the 2009 H1N1 flu, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its “Guidance on Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act.”, which is an excellent resource and may be found here: www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html.
At the end of the day …
Educate yourself, stay current with developments, communicate with your workforce, and remain calm.