First Zombies, Now Ebola, then What? Preparing for Communicable Diseases in the Workplace

October 31, 2014

By Nichole D. Atallah



Oh the good ol’ days, when employees were awaiting a fictional zombie apocalypse and getting them to pay attention to prevention and preparedness was easy thanks to zombie animation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the coming of Ebola has eclipsed not only zombies but common cold and flu preparedness.

It is only natural that Ebola seems much more menacing to us than the flu or other common illnesses, but for employers the threats and risks associated with deadly diseases such as Ebola, HIV, and Hepatitis or more common illnesses like the common cold or the flu can be very similar. Employers should best protect their workforces by engaging in practical workforce preparedness.

In 2012, The Integrated Benefits Institute, which represents major U.S. employers and business coalitions, published a report stating that employee illnesses cost the U.S. economy $576 billion a year. Of that amount, 39% was due to “lost productivity” resulting from employee absenteeism and/or ill employees who lost productivity even though they reported to work. Couple those figures with losses resulting from current hysteria over Ebola which may convince employees to stay at home out of fear, and you have even greater potential losses.

How does an employer protect its workforce from communicable illnesses, thereby protecting both the worker and the company? First, remain calm and do not make rash decisions. As terrifying as deadly diseases might be, the reality is that these diseases are limited to relatively small populations and it is far more likely that the flu will cause you more hardship this year than any of the heavy hitters. It is important to recognize that you control the conversation and tone within your workforce, and, therefore, you have the opportunity to decrease any accompanying hysteria.

Second, evaluate your workforce to determine what measures are appropriate. While an employer with employees working in Ebola-affected areas of Africa may need to take additional precautions, most employers will only need to develop policies regarding when employees should and, most importantly, should not come into work. Employers may want to think about alternative work arrangements for employees who are ill. Depending on the facts and your organization’s appetite for risk, you may choose to do more. It is critical that any policies implemented are thoughtful and appropriately balanced protecting against illness with alienating employees.

Third, employers should be aware that many illnesses are disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other state and federal laws may also be implicated. For example, employees may be entitled to certain benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act. If employees refuse to complete a task because of fear of contamination, Federal and State-OSHA whistleblower protections, as well as anti-retaliation provisions may protect employees if they have made a safety complaint. If someone in your workforce present with a concerning illness, you should consult counsel regarding your legal risks.

Finally, ensure that you have calmly and confidently communicated your plan with your employees. Employers that craft thoughtful polices to protect the spread of illness in the workplace and effectively communicate their policies with employees will be able to successfully get in front of this challenge. Employers also have the opportunity to educate employees about the importance of basic prevention like hand washing and vaccinations. These simple steps will restore the confidence that your employees have in you to manage illness in the workplace and can substantially reduce absences and productivity loss due to employee illness.

About the author: Nichole Atallah is an associate with PilieroMazza in the Labor and Employment Group.  She may be reached at natallah@pilieromazza.com.

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