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Ebola, Employees and the Employer

How the Ebola Crisis is Affecting Employees and the Employer

 Explaining Ebola

Due to constant media attention, the Ebola virus has created great concern for every person, in every nation. The Ebola virus causes an acute, serious illness which is often fatal if untreated. Symptoms of the Ebola virus disease are the sudden onset of fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. It is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function. In some patients, both internal and external bleeding can occur.

The Ebola virus disease (EVD) first appeared in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, one in Nzara, Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter occurred in a village near the Ebola River, from which the virus takes its name.

Why the Ebola panic?

The current outbreak in West Africa, is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976. There have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. It has also spread between countries starting in Guinea then spreading across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia, by air and by land to Senegal.

On August 8, 2014 the WHO Director-General declared this outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

How employees are dealing with Ebola

Understandably, employees, especially those who may come into contact with infected body fluids such as medical workers, airport workers or any employee who may have been exposed to the Ebola virus, are having strong reactions to the Ebola crisis.  How is Ebola impacting these workplaces?

Most recently JFK airport workers walked off the job. According to the Washington Post, “On October 9, 2014, Fearful of exposure to Ebola, about 200 of the people who clean airplane cabins walked off the job overnight at LaGuardia International Airport. The walkout came a day after health and safety experts from the Service Employees International Union, which represents many unionized airport employees, raised concerns over whether cabin cleaners were being adequately protected.”

Non-medical workers are also being extra careful. They are refusing to travel to locales in Africa where the virus has a strong presence or refusing to travel in international flights that pass through parts of Africa affected by the virus.

How employers are dealing with Ebola

A major concern for employers are employees who are showing symptoms of Ebola. They are walking the tightrope of protecting the privacy of an employee over the due diligence of watching out for the rest of their employees.

Take for example the story of two First Energy employees. According to CNBC:

FirstEnergy on Thursday said two of its employees will work from home with pay for 21 days after it learned they came in contact with the second nurse who contracted Ebola in the Dallas hospital where she worked. “We’re just trying to do the right thing,” Todd Schneider, spokesman for the Ohio-based energy company told CNBC, about the decision.

Since the Ebola crisis started an increasing number of employers have been seeking legal advice on what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation.  How will Ebola impact the workplace? It’s an answer that may change as the Ebola crisis runs its course.

CNBC added, “The most common question right now is: If I have a person returning from an affected country or a neighboring country, should I make them stay at home?” said Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips who co-chairs the firm’s Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice, who has fielded several calls from manufacturers with employees from West Africa. The answer, generally, is no. While it may be tempting, doing so could set the employer up for a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They’re better off following the lead of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, which recommends anyone who’s traveled to an Ebola-affected area monitor themselves for symptoms for 21 days but doesn’t impose movement restrictions. (If employees disclose they had close contact with an Ebola patient, however, that’s a different story.”

Options for both employee and employer

So far in dealing with Ebola, it seems that community engagement may be key to successfully controlling outbreaks. That includes applying a package of interventions, namely case management, surveillance and contact tracing, a good laboratory service, safe burials and social mobilization.

CNBC also added this comment from Katharine Parker, an attorney at Proskauer law firm, “Employers should not act based on fear,” Parker said. “Provide employees with information about Ebola … and put in place a plan in the event an employee reports being exposed to Ebola.”

As the Ebola virus runs it course, both employee and employer will need to take the extra measures to contain the spread while keeping their cool.

What to do if you suspect you have Ebola

Common sense rules here. Do not hesitate to get medical attention right away. Acting quick is vital to survival. Early supportive care with rehydration, symptomatic treatment improves survival. There is as yet no licensed treatment proven to neutralize the virus but a range of blood, immunological and drug therapies are under development.

For more information about Ebola please visit www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

Photo by EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

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