Zika is more than just a disease, it is also potentially a huge HR issue

Mosquitoes are the carriers of Zika.
Mosquitoes are the carriers of Zika.

According to an article in the New York Times upwards of 200,000 Americans were expected to visit Rio for the Olympic Games. In addition to seeing great sporting events and watching the U.S. team win 121 medals (American women won enough medals to have finished third as a country) the visitors were also exposed to mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus. Since most of the American visitors are also American employees this poses a problem for American businesses.

Multiple HR issues

According to an article by the law firm Womble Carlyle the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued joint guidance for employers on how to deal with Zika and employees. The ten points in this guidance include:

  1. Educating employee on Zika and administering to those who may be exposed by their job insect repellent and protective clothing as needed. The guidance recommends employers require the use of these protective measures and supplying or reimbursing employees for purchasing these items.
  2. The education should make clear how Zika is spread and in particular focus education to outdoor workers, mosquito control workers, healthcare workers and business travelers.
  3. For companies that have employees that travel to areas more prone to Zika carrying mosquitoes the employer should allow employees more flexibility in their travel schedules.
  4. The guidance points out the Zika could be considered a serious health condition that may trigger a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) need for leave. Employers need to be sensitive to this possibility and follow the appropriate protocol in granting leave.
  5. OSHA points out in the guidance that employees who refuse to travel to areas with active Zika transmission are, under the law, protected from discrimination for refusing to expose themselves to an unsafe condition. The employer may want to consider reasonable alternatives to having the employee travel to “hot” areas.
  6. Employers have to be careful not to discriminate against Hispanic workers or any other worker who may have traveled to or originated from an area with active Zika transmission.
  7. EEOC protection also extends to women who travel, and the company may not make the decision to prohibit women from traveling to infected areas. They should educate the women travelers on the risks, but not make the decision on whether or not they can travel. If an employee wishes to avoid the potential exposure the company should attempt to be accommodating in that request.
  8. HIPAA and other privacy considerations wrapped around the health condition of any particular employee need to be observed and adhered to.
  9. The guidance points out that Zika could trigger an ADA issue, however, companies cannot request medical examinations unless they consider the infected employee a direct risk to other employee. (Given that Zika for the most part is only transmitted by sexual contact that may not be much of an issue.)
  10. The EEOC reminds people that the guidance from the CDC must be followed on whether Zika poses a direct threat and employers are not allowed to make this subjective determination.

How big of an issue will Zika be?

Fortunately Zika will not be an issue for most American workers. The U.S. does a better job of mosquito control than many other places. But companies that have workers that are outside, particularly in the South may want to take precautions. Requiring outside workers to spray some repellent on is not a burden.
But there is never anything wrong with a dose of caution and hopefully you have gotten that here.
For more guidance from the CDC on Zika visit their page here.

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