The Zika Virus: How to Handle Employee Concerns

Q. What if an employee does not want to work outdoors in an area where Zika has been found, or refuses to travel to an area where Zika warnings have been issued? What about pregnant workers?

A.  Employers should first ensure that all employees, especially those who perform their jobs outdoors, are educated about the symptoms of the Zika virus and the methods of transmission of the disease, in addition to prevention and precautions necessary to avoid infection.

An employee can refuse to work if there is a reasonable, objective belief of "imminent death or serious injury." There are standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in this regard. In the case of Zika, the virus is transmitted by mosquito bites, which can be prevented with appropriate safeguards, so the "imminent death or injury" standard is unlikely to be satisfied. However, if an employee, or his or her spouse/partner is pregnant, the standard may be reached.

Before taking any employment action, employers should carefully review each situation, ideally with the guidance of a legal professional. If working indoors, remotely, or at another work location is available and/or reasonable under the circumstances, employers may allow employees to do so.

Employers also should keep in mind that pregnancy laws may require special accommodation, which may include granting a pregnant employee's request to refrain from working outdoors or traveling to an area where Zika is a concern.

Q. Should an employer require a medical exam upon the return of an employee who travelled to an area where the Zika virus has been found?

A.  Generally, no. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if an employee poses a "direct threat" based upon a medical condition, an employer can require a medical exam, if it is job related and there is a business necessity. To-date, the CDC has stated that the Zika virus is not transmitted by casual contact between individuals, therefore the ADA "direct threat" standard would likely not be met. However, direct contact with infectious blood or other body fluids of an infected person, such as blood transfusions or sexual contact, may result in virus transmission. Thus, healthcare and laboratory workers should follow universal precautions, which may be expanded with standard precautions. 

Q.  Is there a requirement that employers have a Zika-related policy?

A.  If employees are occupationally exposed to blood or specific body fluids, employers are required by OSHA standards to have training, protections, programs and procedures regarding bloodborne pathogens (BBP) and should include specific guidance on Zika.

Q. What about co-workers who are nervous because an employee visited an area where the Zika virus has been found?

A.  As with any potential infectious disease, education is the best defense. Help all employees stay informed on the latest CDC-published guidance. Be proactive and share this information with all workers. Visit, www.cdc.gov/zika for the most recent Zika virus updates.

Updated from a previous post.