In the wake of the Ebola outbreak, many small employers may be worrying about their preparedness in the event an employee becomes ill with or exposed to an infectious disease. Concerns are running especially high now that we know individuals exposed to the virus in the United States traveled on commercial airline flights and a cruise ship, potentially jeopardizing the health of fellow travelers.
The good news is that developing a preparedness plan is relatively simple and doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
Let’s start by pointing out that the risk of Ebola and other infectious diseases impacting American workers is very, very low, unless that worker is employed in an occupation that is likely to come in contact with infectious diseases, such as a health care provider. And as we know from recent news, even people living in the same household as an Ebola-infected individual will not necessarily become infected.
In other words, there’s no need for employers to panic. No Ebola pandemic has been or is likely to be declared.
Nevertheless, all employers, even small business owners, have a legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace, and taking reasonable steps to guard against the risk of dangerous infectious diseases in the workplace is part of that obligation. At the same time, various laws require employers to respect employee privacy, often restricting employers from asking about medical conditions and mandating confidentiality of medical information. Balancing obligations under these various laws is critical.
In general, the guiding principle for preparedness and response to infectious diseases is proportionality – plans and actions should be tailored to the magnitude of the risk at hand. The following are some important steps all small employers can take to ensure the safety of their employees, not just from Ebola, but also from other infectious diseases and pandemics.
1.Designate responsible personnel
Identify individuals who will be responsible for key tasks in the event of an outbreak, including communicating with employees and public health authorities; reviewing and updating employee benefits, leave policies and other resources; and locating and engaging vendors and consultants that may be needed (such as specialized cleaning companies, air quality inspection firms, security firms, and so on).
These individuals should also be the ones looking into business continuity insurance and ensuring that technology and communication systems are in place to facilitate remote work and emergency alerts to employees. In many instances, the core team will include individuals from Human Resources, Operations and Security.
2.Train responsible personnel
Meet with these designated individuals to review their respective responsibilities and develop the company’s preparedness plan. These individuals should be required to review materials published by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and local Public Health Officials about preparedness and any potential threats (click here and here for more information).
Consider having a member of the team join an organization such as the Society for Human Resources Management, which provides seminars, model policies and forms for employers. Make sure these individuals are up to speed on employee privacy, the confidentiality of medical information and the questions they may and may not ask about illnesses and exposure to illnesses.
3.Develop a written plan
Draft a written preparedness plan that contains key information including:
•Identity of the members of the preparedness team, their duties and contact information (including home addresses and personal cell phones and emails)
• A list of designated vendors with contact persons, phone and email information (to avoid last minute scrambling, solicit recommendations now for appropriate vendors the firm might need in the event of an emergency).
• A list of important resources and numbers including local public health authorities, hospitals, health insurers, security, etc.
• Basic instructions for what to do if an employee becomes sick while at work, such as isolating the employee, providing the individual with necessary aid, calling an ambulance, and determining whether any additional steps are necessary such as extra cleaning and sanitizing of work spaces.
• Descriptions of basic preventative measures such location of first aid supplies and equipment, distribution/placement of hand sanitizer, tissues and other items to prevent spread of disease, voluntary disease prevention programs such as voluntary flu shots, medical screening and the like.
• Basic information about balancing the privacy of any employee who is ill against the need to protect others from potential contagion.
4.Review employee policies and benefits
To encourage sick or potentially infected individuals to stay home, provide leave benefits that can be utilized for illness, caring for a family member who is ill, doctor’s appointments and child care emergencies. Note that some employers are subject to local paid sick leave and family and medical leave laws that mandate a minimum of leave (paid or unpaid) for these purposes. In some situations, it might be appropriate to advance un-accrued sick or vacation days for employee absences.
Before docking an employee’s pay for absence due to illness, ensure you have reviewed and are complying with applicable wage and hour laws.
5.Communicate with employees
It is critical that employees understand that the company has a plan and resources in place in the event of an emergency. This demonstrates the company’s preparedness, enhances employee confidence in management, and minimizes the risk of panic and mishaps in the event of an emergency.
With respect to Ebola, in particular, the level of panic far exceeds the risk. Therefore, consider doing the following:
• Send employees an email with information about Ebola (linking to appropriate information sources) to minimize the spread of misinformation
• Identify the people within the company to contact with any concerns and let employees know that you have a formal plan in place
• Create wallet-size cards with emergency numbers and protocols for workers
All of these steps will help you ensure that your business is ready in the event of a health emergency. However, you cannot overlook the importance of staying in close communication with public health officials and legal experts.
In any case, before disclosing information about an infected employee to others, consult with local public health authorities and legal counsel to tailor the communication plan to the situation and to maximize privacy of impacted individuals and minimize panic and disruption in the workplace. In the case of a highly infectious disease such as Ebola, for example, an employer will need to be in close contact with and be guided by local public health authorities and the CDC.
Katharine Parker is an Employment Law Partner and Co-Chair of the Employment Counseling and Training Group at Proskauer Rose LLP in New York.
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