Spread of Zika Virus Could Affect Employee Travel

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By Genevieve Douglas

Feb. 9 — As the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus grabs international headlines, employers should ensure that employees traveling to affected areas or already working in them have proper protection, particularly in the case of pregnant workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that pregnant women in the U.S. not travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission, Dr. Denise Jamieson, chief of the Women’s Health and Fertility Branch at the CDC in Atlanta, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 8.

For women living in areas where there is Zika virus transmission, Jamieson said, the CDC recommends those individuals make a plan for contraception so that they don't have an unplanned pregnancy while at risk.

Outbreaks of Zika have occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Americas.

While the most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and eye redness and irritation, Zika virus can be spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby, and there have been reports of birth defects and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant, according to the CDC.

Risk Management, Business Continuity Plans

“At a time like this it is important to review procedures for disseminating information about travel risks,” Scott Lockman, director of commercial insurance at Clements Worldwide, a provider of insurance solutions for expatriates and international organizations, told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail Feb. 4.

Lockman recommended companies have a risk management plan in place that addresses how to communicate with at-risk employees and how best to verify quickly evolving information about the virus.

He also advised that employers communicate best practices from the CDC and other resources, such as recommendations to avoid mosquito bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, sleeping under a mosquito net and using insect repellent. Employers also should consider other ways to minimize spread of the illness in the workplace, such as hygiene policies or encouraging staff to stay home if ill.

Additionally, if the outbreak becomes more of a threat to the continental U.S., Lockman said, companies need to have a business continuity plan “to ensure you have plans that keep the business running if a worst case scenario occurred.”

Accommodate Pregnant Employees

It seems that, for the most part, this virus is transmitted in fewer ways than other pandemics, such as Ebola, but it could pose a risk to a specific contingent of pregnant employees or those of childbearing age, attorney Jason Branciforte, shareholder in the Washington, D.C., office of Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 5.

In this case, the legal standard for employers falls under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to allow employees to decline travel to a hot zone for Zika while pregnant, he said.

“Practically speaking, I would encourage all employers who may have worried pregnant employees to find a way to not send them,” Branciforte advised. “That’s a no brainer from my perspective. Even if the harm is minimal, they should not be put in harm’s way.”

The best precedent to set, Branciforte said, is to accommodate employees. Technology allows for employees to work in foreign locales without actually traveling, he added.

Employers also should be on the lookout for co-worker panic if an employee returns from travel to an affected area, Branciforte warned. It’s important to educate employees and communicate with them as new information arises, he said, so that no one feels unsafe in the workplace.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com

For More Information

CDC resources on the Zika virus are available at http://www.cdc.gov/media/dpk/2016/dpk-zika-virus.html.