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Employers should prepare now to prevent and respond to infections among their workers from the mosquito-borne Zika virus that the World Health Organization has declared an international public emergency.
The rare WHO declaration about the virus reported in more than 30 countries in South and Central America and some Caribbean nations since the start of 2014 included a call on the global community to speed up the development of a vaccine.
As of Feb. 10, 52 travel-associated cases had been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials also confirmed that a person in Dallas was infected through sexual transmission.
The suspected-but-not-yet-proven link between the infection and microcephaly, or unusually small heads, in the babies of pregnant women who contract the virus, as well as increased reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome and other neurological conditions in Zika-stricken areas, prompted the WHO warning.
Employers such as Kimberly-Clark Corp., Marriott International Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. with workers in Zika-affected areas said they are monitoring the disease and keeping employees in those areas informed.
In the meantime, risk management experts say employers should take steps to lessen the impact of an outbreak.
“The first thing employers have to do is they themselves have to become educated on the disease. They have to really learn what the ramifications are, where their liability may develop by some of their actions if not taking the appropriate action,” said Dr. Lawrence Levy, Dallas-based national medical director at Lockton Benefit Group.
If a link between microcephaly and Zika virus is proven, he said, “You are going to have some real limitations on sending your people to certain areas of the country under certain circumstances, especially your female population.”
Educating employees on how to protect themselves is key, he said.
“The big piece for companies really is No. 1, that awareness piece — really looking at and reviewing current company policies on health issues but also on company travel,” and adapting them to reflect the Zika virus, said Renata Elias, Dallas-based vice president of Marsh Risk Consulting's reputational risk and crisis management practice. “Do employees who are at that point where they're either considering having children, or are already pregnant, need to go (or) can they work remotely and not go?”
Employers should be “looking at how they're going to communicate to employees, giving employees the tools and the option to be able to make decisions,” she said.
According to a Feb. 5 State Department survey of its 3,500-member company Overseas Security Advisory Council, 38% of U.S. multinationals, universities and nonprofits were allowing female employees to defer travel to or leave areas hit by the virus and about 20% gave male employees a similar option, Reuters reported.
San Jose, California-based technology company Cisco Systems, which has about 1,900 workers in Latin America, has convened a meeting of its pandemic planning response team to discuss the best way to approach the Zika virus, said a company spokeswoman who is on the response team. Cisco has distributed preventative and travel information to its employees from health authorities and allows any employee who feels at risk to defer business travel, she said.
“We always try to take a calm and measured approach,” the spokeswoman said.
In addition to issuing travel advisories and other information on the virus to employees, Kimberly-Clark, the maker of brands such as Kleenex and Huggies, increased pest control at its facilities throughout affected regions, a company spokesman said.
And hotel chain Marriott International said in a statement that it has fogged outdoor areas, cleared standing water and educated employees on the virus.
In addition, United Airlines Inc., American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. offered to reassign employees who asked to avoid affected areas, Reuters reported.
The WHO stopped short of placing travel restrictions on regions affected by the Zika virus, and employers should refrain from doing so, experts say.
“Until the various public health guidance changes, an employer is not acting negligently to ask employees to go to these countries,” said Howard Mavity, an Atlanta-based partner at law firm Fisher & Phillips L.L.P. and founder and co-chair of the firm's workplace safety and catastrophe management practice group.
But if an employer does restrict business travel to affected countries, all employees should be restricted — not just pregnant women, he said.
“The law tends to err … on the side of the employee to use their own judgment,” Mr. Mavity said.
If an employee does travel to a Zika-affected country, employers need to keep that employee from being discriminated against after returning to work, said Dean Rocco, Los Angeles-based partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker L.L.P.
“In the case of Ebola, people were going to Africa for family reasons or whatever the case might be, and there might have been a stigma attached to them when they came into the workplace,” Mr. Rocco said. “An employer would need to be careful that someone doesn't get ostracized,” which could violate anti-discrimination laws, he said. Previous CDC guidelines advise employers to monitor employees returning from regions with a virus for symptoms, Mr. Rocco said.
There's “tension” in the law, however, because the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents requiring medical testing without a business justification, so “if any employer is faced with that set of circumstances, they should be working with their employment law counsel to make sure that they are navigating those waters correctly,” he said.