Given the recent Ebola outbreak and its inevitable diagnosis in the United States, many companies are reviewing how the workplace is affected by communicable diseases. Although the risk of contracting Ebola in the United States is now very low, the recent outbreak brings up very real concerns for employers and employees alike. The American Disability Act (ADA) places limits on the information employers may ask employees regarding their health and potential disability. As an example, an employer may require a medical exam only if they have a reasonable belief that an employee may not be able to perform their essential job functions or the disability may pose a threat to their own or other workers safety.
The H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 brought up similar concerns. During that time the EEOC issued some guidance for pandemic preparedness which can be applied to the current Ebola outbreak. The EEOC indicated that employers could not ask employees to get a medical exam or refuse to allow them to come to work if they had only traveled to a location where the illness was present. Asking an employee if they have travelled to an affected area is allowed though since it is not asking about specific medical information.
Due to the recent outbreak it may time for employers to consider having a Communicable Disease Policy. Although policies can never cover all workplace situations, having such a policy may allow a company to have a safe workplace and protect its employees and customers while complying with applicable laws. This policy should be developed in alignment with any other existing workplace illness policies.
The key is communication. At a minimum, employers should make sure they have a strong employee communication process and the ability to get accurate information to employees quickly. In the current Ebola situation, the health risk to employees is very low but the fear has been high. A sound communication policy can be a great asset in alleviating fears by openly communicating with employees and allowing them an opportunity to ask questions regarding any concerns they may have.