U.S. employers are not immune to the Ebola scare sweeping the country, but for most businesses, the risk of their employees contracting the virus remains extremely low. Nevertheless, employers are encouraged to re-examine their workplace travel policies and pandemic plans, say labor and business health experts.

It’s not a time to panic, but it’s important to be prepared, says Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips. Ebola is “a controllable malady; it’s not that easily contracted, and employers need to take a breath,” he says.

Now that cases have appeared in the U.S., Ebola is on everybody’s radar screen, agrees Jayne Lux, vice president with the global business group on health arm of the National Business Group on Health. “Back in August, employers started expressing concern about this and it was specifically companies that have operations in West Africa. … That crowd, particularly oil companies although not exclusively, have been tracking this and watching it,” she says. “It’s clearly of interest to global employers.”

Also see: 7 tips to prepare your workforce for flu season

Current actions employers are taking range from educating employees about Ebola risk factors and preventive measures to “really combating the fear and misinformation,” says Lux. U.S. organizations with operations in West Africa are also looking at assessing their business risk, “looking at the impact of worker absenteeism and issues of quarantining people and issues of supply chain delays.”

The No. 1 question Mavity says he’s fielding from employers is: If someone comes back from West Africa, or I think they’ve been exposed to Ebola through other means, can I tell them to stay home for 21 days?

“As best we can tell from the CDC guidance, if someone’s been traveling in West Africa and the questionnaire’s been completed accurately and you can rule out contact [with Ebola] and they don’t have a fever, it’s safe to return to work,” says Mavity. “Some employers I’ve talked to are taking [employees’] temperatures or having them do it at home, but they’re not saying ‘You have to stay home for 21 days’ simply because they were in West Africa.”

In fact, he cautions, requiring workers to stay home for a period of time after they’ve traveled to any of the affected countries in Africa, which include Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, may run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“If you wanted to have a blanket-wide rule that said employees must stay home if they have a fever, you could,” he explains. “But I think if you enforce that rule simply because you think the person might’ve been exposed to Ebola, I think that would be perceived as an adverse action against someone you wrongly perceive to have a disability condition.” And that, says Mavity, is a violation of the ADA.

Lux recommends employers dust off their pandemic preparedness plans that were developed in response to previous flu virus scares, such as the swine flu and avian flu.

“The likelihood they need to worry about large numbers of people not showing up to work because they’re sick or people coming to work sick – all that stuff we went through with that [swine flu] pandemic preparedness – is not really going to be relevant today,” says Lux. “But it is still a wake-up call to look at those preparedness protocols and to make sure everyone is exercised in them and knows what they’re supposed to do.” 

Lux also recommends employers look at their travel safety protocols. “Take a look at where your people are traveling in the world and what policies are in place to deal with that,” she says.

Mavity, meanwhile, suggests HR directors communicate to supervisors that if there are any issues or concerns in the workplace about Ebola, that supervisors take those concerns to HR and not react in isolation. “People get sued when they do things in a knee-jerk fashion,” he says. “Don’t take adverse action without getting guidance.”

He also advises employers to stay on top of any guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What we’ve learned over the years with a succession of flu pandemics and with AIDS, Hepatitis, MRSA [antibiotic-resistant staph infection] – all these infectious diseases that may show up in a workplace – we’ve learned that generally you can avoid a successful legal challenge if you track the direction of the CDC and the public health services,” says Mavity.

However, employers should not assume they have no risk. “Every employer ought to take some steps,” says Mavity. Still, he advises everyone in general to “chill out. It’s never helpful in these scenarios for people to just flip out. … When people get scared and act irrationally, they get their employers sued.”

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