To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine: What Employers Should Do Now About Infectious Diseases To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine: What Employers Should Do Now About Infectious Diseases

To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine: What Employers Should Do Now About Infectious Diseases

While both federal and state governments struggle to decide how best to stop the spread of Ebola, employers once again need to go back to basics and review their infectious disease policy or, if they do not have a policy, to think about what they plan to do regarding the impact of an infectious disease on the workplace. Ebola is the latest, and possibly the deadliest (depending on where you live and work), of a number of infectious diseases that have caused employers to consider implementing policies to address these issues. Those of us who have been in the human resources area for a while may also remember when employees were concerned about catching HIV while at work or whether they should travel to Asia (or Toronto) during a SARS outbreak. It is interesting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since 2004, there have not been any known cases of SARS reported anywhere in the world. So, while the infectious disease may change, employers need to have a plan on what they should do if there is an outbreak that impacts their workplace.

You should start with a review of your applicable policies, including your infectious disease policy. An infectious disease policy generally confirms that the company’s goal is to strive to operate effectively during an infectious disease outbreak and to ensure that all essential services are continuously provided and employees are safe within the workplace. The policy should encourage employees to use good hygiene practices at work and to participate in company sponsored wellness programs. It should also tell employees who is designated to give out information and coordinate company actions during an infectious disease outbreak. The policy should also address whether benefits may be available due to an infectious disease outbreak, such as whether paid time off can be used to try to encourage employees to not come to the workplace if they are displaying symptoms of illness or if subject to quarantine directives. It could also specify that an infectious disease outbreak could result in canceled vacations, mandatory overtime, temporary reassignment of staff, and/or use of temporary employees. The policy may also require employees to notify the company about travel to areas known to be infectious disease hot spots.

In addition to reviewing the infectious disease policy, employers should remember that OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to keep their workplace free of recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm to workers.   They should also review related OSHA standards such as the Bloodborne Pathogens standard (29 CFR 1910.1030), which could cover exposure to viruses such as Ebola, as it is transmitted by blood or other potentially infectious materials. OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134) and OSA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard (29 CFR 1910.132) may also be applicable in certain workplaces. States that have OSHA-approved State Plans should review those standards as well, to the extent that they impose additional obligations on employers.

Employers also need to remember to keep in mind that during an infectious disease outbreak they are still required to consider and abide by federal and state employment-related laws such as those pertaining to family and medical leave, anti-discrimination, and privacy of medical information. There may also be legal protections for employees who reasonably refuse to work in an unsafe workplace. Think of the nurses in Dallas or the crews that clean airplanes.

Should you need assistance developing an infectious disease policy or have any questions about how various laws may impact your workplace, 
please feel free to contact any of the Labor and Employment attorneys at Ice Miller.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.

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