Business travel and Zika: Things you need to know
Zika's impact on travel destinations
On Feb. 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern.” Although the virus has appeared in the U.S., the spread of Zika in the United States is not expected to reach the levels seen in other countries. Nonetheless, employers may be impacted if employees travel to affected areas for work or for personal reasons or if employees get infected.
Key to managing concerns related to the virus is for employers to educate themselves before questions arise. (Two good sources of information are the websites of the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), areas currently affected include much of South America, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean islands and some Pacific islands. The CDC suggests that women who are pregnant consider postponing travel to these areas. As of Feb. 17, 2016, only 82 travel-associated cases were reported in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Employees required to travel to affected areas for work may want to know how the virus is transmitted, what the risk of infection is, how they can protect themselves, and whether they can refuse to make the trip.
Zika is transmitted by the bite of a certain kind of mosquito. According to the CDC, it is not transmitted from one person to another through casual contact. It may be transmitted through the exchange of blood or bodily fluids in childbirth or sexual activity.
The CDC states that Zika poses little risk to most people but could cause significant harm to unborn children. One in five people infected with Zika will develop symptoms, which include low grade fever, skin rash, red eyes, muscle and joint pain, malaise, and headache. The symptoms normally last a few days. There is no medication available to cure Zika. Over-the-counter pain and fever medications, rest, and fluids may provide some relief from the symptoms.
There is no vaccination to prevent infection. Preventative measures include avoiding mosquito bites by using insect repellent, wearing light-colored clothing covering the body and using screened doors and windows.
Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, employees can refuse to work only if they genuinely believe that imminent danger exists and a reasonable person would agree. This standard will be difficult to meet in light of the relatively low risk presented and means available for avoiding the risk.
Employers cannot prevent employees from carrying out their duties involving travel to affected areas, though they may offer other options. Even if an employee is pregnant, the employer must leave decisions regarding the welfare of future children to the parents. Employers should advise employees traveling to affected areas about the risks and preventive measures that can be taken.
Travel for employee’s personal reasons
Employees may develop concerns related to co-workers traveling to affected areas for personal reasons, and then returning to the workplace. In addition to the questions listed above, employees will likely want to know about the incubation period for Zika. The time between exposure and symptoms is not known, but the CDC says it is likely to be a few days to a week.
Employers cannot prevent employees from traveling to these areas for personal reasons because such travel is lawful conduct. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers may not require employees to submit to a medical examination before returning to work or prohibit them from returning unless the employer reasonably believes, based on objective evidence, that the employee poses a “direct threat” because of a medical condition. In most workplaces, this test will not be met because the virus is not transmitted through casual contact. OSHA has standards employers must meet when their employees are exposed to blood or specific bodily fluids in their work.
Employees who are infected or display symptoms
Under the ADA, employers can require a medical evaluation only if it is job related and consistent with business necessity. As noted above, employers may not require medical exams or prohibit employees from working unless their illness poses a direct threat. Public agencies have not required individuals returning from affected areas be quarantined and employers who impose restrictions not required by such agencies expose themselves to a host of legal claims.
Health officials continue to research the Zika virus and employers should continue to monitor developments through reputable sources. Employers should encourage employees who have questions to explore those resources, and provide copies of current CDC guidelines to those who may be traveling to affected areas.