Legal Implications of Zika Virus for Employers

While many frequent travelers are taking the Zika virus in stride, and according to Business Travel News it has not had a significant impact on business travel, businesses must tread carefully to avoid any legal implications when forging company policy in regards to Zika.

Despite an overwhelming amount of media coverage, a survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives found that frequent travelers are unlikely to alter their travel plans to the affected region. While there is little verifiable scientific knowledge about the virus that has been headlining daily, experienced travelers are going about business as usual, treating it like another risk of global travel.

However, there is growing concern about the risk to businesswomen, as there is a possible link between the virus and microcepahly in newborn children, which is a condition that prevents proper development and growth. Companies must err on the side of caution when dealing with travel to affected regions, balancing their Duty of Care obligations with employee concerns and uncertain information about the virus. Most importantly, they must consider the legal implications of travel policy when dealing with this issue.

Implications for women

So far, Zika presents the highest threat to pregnant women. The Center for Disease Control has advised that pregnant women or those contemplating pregnancy should consider postponing travel to outbreak regions. Well meaning employers may attempt to keep these women from traveling, however it could trigger gender or pregnancy discrimination claims since under federal employment law, an employer may not make any health-related decisions for its employees. In addition, it is advisable that companies do not require an employee under any circumstance to travel to the area, given that if the employee does contract Zika and it leads to birth defects, it leaves the company extremely liable.

Implications for men

It has been determined that Zika is transmitted by bug bite and via exchange of bodily fluids, which means it could possibly be sexually transmitted. This implies that men are also increasingly at risk. The CDC has advised that men who have been in affected regions and have a pregnant partner should abstain from sex, and couples with a male partner who has traveled should consider using condoms as a precautionary measure. Given this information, all employees should be given the option not to travel to these areas.  

Employees who have traveled to outbreak areas

For those who have employees who have returned from Zika affected areas, it is not advisable for them to take measures such as quarantine or test these employees before allowing them to return to work. So far, it has been determined that the virus can be contracted through a direct bug bite or exchange of bodily fluids, which means that there is limited risk of contagion in the workplace and therefore it could be difficult to employ such measures under existing law. The best thing employers should do is provide up to date and relevant information to their employees, allowing them to make their own decisions with full knowledge of the risk and implications involved.

Major airlines have been quite lenient in allowing passengers to reschedule trips to affected areas without a penalty and some even allowing them to cancel.  Zika is transmitted by a specific type of mosquito, and is being actively transmitted throughout regions in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and other areas. International SOS has created an interactive map that rates the prevalent medical and security risks around the world. Medical Risk Ratings are defined as “Low”, “Medium”, “High”, “Very High”, and “Rapidly Devolving Medical Risk”. The result is a highly valuable tool for organizations to take the appropriate precautions in line with the risks they may encounter when traveling to a particular location.

Travel Managers should be up to date on which of their travelers are going to selected regions and ensure that they are fully informed of the risks, implications, and preventative measures that should be taken regarding the Zika virus. Companies should give all their employees the option not to travel to these areas.

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