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Ebola becomes a workplace concern

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
Ebola becomes a workplace concern

Imagine you’re a boss with a worker who tells you he was exposed to the deadly Ebola virus. What would you do?

An increasing number of businesses, universities and other types of organizations are beginning to ask that question, as the Ebola death toll rises and authorities warn the virus could infect 10,000 people per week by the end of the year globally. And the answers aren't simple ones.

“A pandemic touches all parts of a business, potentially,” says Randy Nornes, executive vice president at consulting firm Aon Risk Solutions. “This is an extremely complex topic. When a pandemic comes up, one thing a lot of companies find is a lot of connectivity is missing inside the organization."

Worry over Ebola in the United States vastly exceeds its actual presence here; there are only a handful of cases among a population of 320 million. Statistically, that’s almost too minuscule to measure. Yet experts warn the virus could spread rapidly under the right conditions, and missteps by state and federal officials have already shown how the virus can evade aggressive efforts to contain it. In response to questions from corporate clients, Aon recently established an online “Ebola response site” to address concerns businesses might have about the virus.

Employers face the challenge of offering support and compassion to staffers who might have been exposed to the virus, while assuring the rest of their workforce that all necessary safeguards are in place. One U.S. firm, the Akron, Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy, has already said one employee was in contact with a Texas nurse who later tested positive for Ebola, with a second worker claiming possible exposure to the virus as well. The company gave both workers three weeks of leave with pay, which benefits experts generally consider to be an appropriate measure. That’s enough time to cover the 21-day isolation period required to determine if someone is infected.

Other companies may be dealing privately with employees who were on one of the Frontier Airlines flights the stricken nurse flew on between Dallas and Cleveland in mid-October. In addition to deciding whether to offer three weeks of paid leave, companies must grapple with trickier questions: Should companies notify other workers if there’s an exposed employee in their midst, for instance, or keep their mouths shut?

Legal obligations and ramifications

In general, employers are legally obligated to safeguard the privacy of employees’ medical information. But they’re also obligated to inform the government about possible Ebola cases, because they represent a public health risk. Some workers at risk of Ebola willingly disclose the information, but others want privacy, to avoid the stigma associated with the virus. Figuring out what a company must or should disclose is a case-by-case matter fraught with legal implications if it reveals too much, or too little.

At many companies, these will remain theoretical concerns. But in some industries—such as energy and chocolate—the nature of the work may require some workers to interact directly with people from the parts of West Africa most affected by the virus. In addition to concerns about health, U.S. companies might have to pay worker’s compensation claims if their employees encounter Ebola on the job—as two infected nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas did. Exposed workers can also sue their employers, although worker’s comp can limit legal options in some states, unless a worker dies and family members pursue litigation.

The prospect of Ebola-related lawsuits has led insurance companies to review their options. Aon's Narnes says some insurance companies that write policies for companies have begun to explore clauses that would exclude Ebola cases from coverage and limit their own liability. Employers are likely to push back against such exclusion clauses.

Precautionary measures on campus

Some universities are concerned that students will globetrot during Thanksgiving and end-of-year breaks, potentially bumping into people infected with the virus and bringing it back to campus. Most schools have procedures for dealing with infectious diseases, such as meningitis, but the fear factor regarding Ebola could prompt new measures—including overreaction. Navarro College in Texas drew criticism recently for refusing to consider any applicants from Nigeria, which the World Health Organization now says is Ebola-free. When Kent State discovered that three of its employees were related to the infected Dallas nurse who visited Ohio, it asked them to stay off campus for 21 days.

The American College Health Association advises schools to make sure they know what to do if a student needs to be quarantined or infectious medical waste needs to be destroyed, and to make sure they coordinate in advance with the local health department. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked schools to cancel education-related travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone—the countries where Ebola is most prevalent— “until further notice.”

As scary as Ebola seems, it has precedent. Many organizations developed plans for dealing with a pandemic during the H1N1 scare in 2009 or the SARS outbreak in 2002. In those instances, the biggest problem at most companies turned out to be mass abseentism among workers who got sick rather than the rapid spread of infection.

To deal with such problems, many organizations develop temporary task forces, to coordinate action among departments that don’t otherwise interact and concentrate leadership in one place. But when the problem goes away, so does the task force, often leaving nobody in charge. Given that the CDC itself seemed unprepared for Ebola in the United States, it’s probably safe for businesses to assume their own plans might have a hole or two.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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