New news reports on Ebola, both about the epidemic in West Africa and new details about the health care workers in Dallas who have been infected, have heightened employer concerns. Today Andrew Morse of the Wall Street Journal reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) is predicting that as many as 10,000 new cases a week could be reported by early December. Further, another health care worker in Dallas who was treating an Ebola-infected patient has tested positive for Ebola. More frightening, Timothy Williams of the New York Times reported today that this second health care worker took a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas the day before she reported symptoms, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reaching out to passengers on the flight to advise them about potential exposure. Fortunately, the article also reports that, according to the CDC, the other passengers have a very low risk of contracting Ebola. In sum, a lot has happened in just four days when we first posted information for employers about Ebola.
These rapid developments demonstrate that employers must constantly monitor this situation and consider whether additional steps are needed to ensure the safety of their employees. Since our post on October 10, 2014, some employers may want to consider whether additional safety measures are required, including requiring employees who have returned from West Africa or other places where there was a high risk of exposure to Ebola to stay home from work for the 21-day incubation period or to obtain medical clearance before being permitted to return to work.
According to the EEOC in its Pandemic Preparedness Guidelines:
- If a pandemic disease becomes widespread as assessed by state or local health authorities or the CDC, then employers may take its employees’ temperatures to determine if they have a fever. As has been widely reported in the news, a fever is one of the first symptoms of Ebola. If it appears that more commercial airline passengers are at risk, particularly as the epidemic continues to mushroom in West Africa (as predicted by the WHO), employers may need to think about steps such as temperature checks of employees who have returned from West Africa or potentially had exposure to infected individuals for the Ebola incubation period.
- Also, if the CDC or state or local health officials recommend that people who visit specified locations remain at home for a period of time until it is clear that they do not have the pandemic disease symptoms, an employer may ask employees whether they are returning from the specified locations and require them to remain at home.
- Employers may encourage employees to telecommute as an infection-control strategy during a pandemic.
- Employers may require employees to adopt infection-control practices at work during a pandemic.
- An employer is entitled to know why an employee has not reported for work, including during a pandemic.
- An employer may require an employee who has been away from the workplace during a pandemic to provide medical clearance certifying fitness to return to work.
At bottom, employers should evaluate, based on accurate and credible information (such as from the CDC), whether additional safety precautions are needed to protect their employees.