Over the past several weeks, we have had questions from employers asking about employees’ concerns over exposure to the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). At first, most of these questions involved employee concerns over travel to China. In our experience, employers have temporarily suspended employee travel to China based on concerns over exposing their workers to the virus.
However, we had another client explain that employees had objected to traveling to a trade show in Florida, on the basis that a number of the likely attendees were Chinese and therefore could be carrying the coronavirus. In this situation, must the employer accommodate the employees by allowing them to skip the trade show?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and OSHA websites, there is no evidence of widespread transmission of 2019-nCoV in the United States at this time. Without sustained human-to-human transmission, most American workers are not at significant risk of infection. Exposure risk may be elevated for some workers who interact with potentially infected travelers from abroad, but this risk is limited to certain occupations, such as health care and airlines.
Employers are under no legal obligation to accommodate employee requests to avoid work situations where they could come into contact with persons from China. Companies faced with employee concerns should use information provided by the CDC and OSHA to explain that there is no current significant risk of exposure while traveling in the United States. Employers should also commit to monitoring the situation and, if necessary, make changes to their international and domestic travel policies.