Media reports of the Swine Flu outbreak in Mexico have led many employers to examine their contingency plans for dealing with a possible disease pandemic. The federal government has issued a number of helpful guidances for employers looking to develop response plans. The Center for Disease Control’s pandemic flu Website, www.pandemicflu.gov, includes a Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist that contains a number of suggested steps, including adoption of an emergency response plan, policies for dealing with sick workers, establishment of temporary remote working options, employee communications, and coordination with local health officials.
OSHA’s Web site includes information, FAQs, and guidance for employers, including healthcare workers, on safety issues involved in responding to pandemic flu outbreaks. This information can be found at www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/pandemicflu/index.html.
Employers face a few legal issues when responding to an employee with a suspected communicable disease. If the employer has reasonable belief that the employee could present a danger to co-workers or to third parties, it can require the employee to leave work, and to provide medical information indicating that he/she is capable of performing the job without presenting a direct threat of harm to others. Sick employees may qualify for FMLA leave, or in more serious situations, reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Employers should never share medical information concerning an employee with co-workers or other persons who do not have a direct business need to know about the nature of their condition. Communications made to employees about possible workplace exposure should be made without reference to the identity of the suspected carrier.
Development of a flu contingency plan can help reassure employees that the company is prepared and ready to respond to a serious flu outbreak. Advance planning allows the employer to answer questions and to reduce the level of employee anxiety over the effects of the flu on their jobs.