Now that a second nurse from the Dallas hospital that was treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the first U.S. Ebola patient, was found to have contracted Ebola, the media has ratcheted up coverage of the crisis and frightened many people as a result. The infected nurse took a Frontier flight from Cleveland to Dallas while she had a slight temperature, which was below the CDC guidelines for the Ebola breakout. The nurse had called the CDC and informed the agency of her temperature but she was not stopped from boarding. And now near-panic has spread. “Because of the proximity in time between the evening flight and first report of illness the following morning, CDC is reaching out to passengers," the agency said. The plane had 132 passengers.
Frontier Airlines crew for the flight have been suspended from duty with pay, said Todd Lehmacher, a spokesman for the Denver-based airline. The carrier notified unions representing its workers before issuing a joint statement with the CDC on flights taken by the nurse. "Though there is very little risk to our crew members per what the CDC is telling us, we made the decision out of an abundance of caution as we want to ensure both our employees and customers are kept safe," he said. "Their well-being is our primary concern."
Extra precautions are also being taken for people who shared flights with the nurse. Employees from the Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth on the flight were placed on paid leave.
With concerns mounting, some workers may refuse to do their jobs because they fear contracting the virus. It has already happened. Workers at New York’s LaGuardia’s airport who clean airplane cabins have briefly walked off the job and picketed. National Nurses United has said that their members are not being told how to properly protect themselves when dealing with Ebola-infected patients.
Can any employer tell its employees to return to work or risk their jobs? Likely not, says Howard Mavity, a senior partner at the Atlanta-based national management labor firm Fisher & Phillips. "There are legal protections for people who choose to refuse,'' Mavity says. "Under OSHA anti-retaliation law, if you have a reasonable fear for safety and refuse to work, that's protected, but if it's frivolous it's not. So right now it's anyone's guess how that would be perceived."
Further, can employers do what the Cleveland Clinic did—tell employees who either have returned from western Africa or been in contact with a potential Ebola patient to stay home from work? The CDC guidance for Ebola monitoring is that travelers who have returned from affected areas should have their health monitored for the three-week incubation period, and employers should identify anyone who may have had a contact that concerns them, and ensure that any worker who begins to show symptoms of the virus is assessed quickly.
However, employers who require employees who returned from that part of the world or just been in contact with someone who may have the virus to stay home regardless to determine whether they have Ebola or not could be liable for ADA or National Origin discrimination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hasn’t helped employers in this situation since the CDC "is not saying it's so dangerous you should exclude someone who's just returned, and if the employer does that it's likely they're violating the law,'' says Mavity.
Some employers are limiting travel to West Africa. Myles Druckman, senior vice president of the Americans for International SOS Assistance, says that businesses are holding town hall-style meetings, web-based talks, and even discussions with the families of traveling workers to let employees know there are plans in place if health-related problems arise — including overseas evacuations if required. "This is an issue of organizations really getting a handle on how they prepare travelers before they go,'' Druckman said, "and ultimately how can you can alert them during the trip ... if things do escalate.''
In the meantime, OSHA has come out with a guidance to help employers deal with Ebola in the workplace, including information about the disease itself, about the employer’s general duties under the law, and about the government’s consultation program related to the disease.
Source: Bloomberg 10/15/14, USAToday 10/15/14, ABC 10/16/14