Employer H1N1 Virus Risk Management Requires Employer Care To Manage Virus Risks Without Violating Employment Discrimination or Other Laws

As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues cautioning Americans to expect a resurgence of the H1N1 virus, employers should continue to take prudent steps to defend their organization and their workers against a widespread H1N1 outbreak and the attendant lost time, health and disability costs, OSHA and other liability exposures and other personal and financial consequences likely to result from an outbreak. 

Employers wishing to deter the spread of the disease in their workplace should educate workers about these recommendations and consider taking steps to encourage workers to comply with these recommendations. When planning or taking steps to protect their workplaces from the H1N1 virus pandemic or other outbreaks of communicable diseases, however, employers must use care to avoid violating the Americans With Disabilities Act or other employment laws.

Preventing, Recognizing & Mitigating Risks of H1N1

Although the number of reported cases of H1N1 virus cases has declined in many states in recent weeks, CDC officials are warning American’s that the crisis is not over yet.  CDC officials last week warned Americans to expect H1N1 infection to rise as the holiday approaches and the winter progresses. With flu activity already higher than what is seen during the peak of many regular flu seasons and the H1NA virus accounting for almost all of the flu viruses identified so for this season,  Accordingly,  the CDC continues to encourage Americans to be alert for symptoms of H1N1 or other flu and to take other precautions including to get vaccinated.

Employers should continue to encourage workers and their families to take precautions to avoid catching the virus, to be on the watch for H1N1 virus or other flu infection and to respond appropriately if they, members of their families or others in the workplace exhibit these symptoms.   To help promote health habits within their workforce, many businesses may want to download and circulate to employees and families the free resources published by the CDC here.  Businesses and other concerned parties also can track governmental reports about the swine flu and other pandemic concerns at here.   

For those not already suffering from the virus and particularly for those at higher risk, the CDC continues to recommend vaccination. People recommended by the CDC to receive the vaccine as soon possible include:  health care workers; pregnant women; people ages 25 through 64 with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes; anyone from 6 months through 24 years of age; and people living with or caring for infants under 6 months old.  As the vaccine becomes available, many employers are encouraging workers and their families to get vaccinated by offering vaccination clinics at or near their worksites, arranging for health plan coverage for vaccinations with reduced or no co-payments or deductibles, and/or sharing information about government sponsored or other vaccination clinics. 

While the CDC says getting employees and their families to get a flu shot remains the best defense against a flu outbreak, it also says getting employees and family members to consistently practice good health habits like covering a cough and washing hands also is another important key to prevent the spread of germs and prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu.  Employers should encourage employees and their families to take the following steps: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too;
  • Stay home when you are sick to help prevent others from catching your illness;
  •  Cover your mouth and nose;
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick;
  • Clean your hands to protect yourself from germs;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
  • Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth; and
  • Practice other good health habits.  Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Employers also should encourage workers and their families to be alert to possible signs of H1N1 or other flu symptoms and to respond appropriately to possible infection.  According to the CDC, all types of flu including H1NA typically include many common symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Coughing and/or sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue

Patients suffering from H1N1 flu usually report these same symptoms, but the symptoms often are more severe. In addition to the above symptoms, a number of H1N1 flu cases reported vomiting and diarrhea.

CDC recommends individuals diagnosed with H1N1 flu should:

  • Stay home and avoid contact with others for at least 24 hours after a fever (100°F or 37.8°C) is gone without the use of fever reducing medicine except to get medical care or for other things that must be done that no one else can do;
  • Avoid close contact with others, especially those who might easily get the flu, such as people age 65 years and older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, young children, and infants;
  • Clean hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub often, especially after using tissues or coughing/sneezing into your hands;
  • Cover coughs and sneezes;
  • Wear a facemask when sharing common spaces with other household members to help prevent spreading the virus to others. This is especially important if other household members are at high risk for complications from influenza;
  • Drink clear fluids such as water, broth, sports drinks, or electrolyte beverages made for infants to prevent becoming dehydrated;
  • Get plenty of rest;
  • Follow doctor’s orders; and
  • Watch for signs for a need for immediate medical attention. Suffers should get medical attention right away if the sufferer has difficulty breathing or chest pain,  purple or blue discoloration of the lips, is vomiting and unable to keep liquids down, or shows signs of dehydration, such as feeling dizzy when standing or being unable to urinate.

In seeking to contain the spread of the virus within their workplace, employers also should be sensitive to workplace policies or practices that may pressure employees with a contagious disease to report to work despite an illness and consider whether the employer should adjust these policies temporarily or permanently in light of the ongoing pandemic.  For instance, financial pressures and the design and enforcement of policies regarding working from home and/or qualifying for paid or unpaid time off significantly impact the decisions employees make about whether to come to work when first experiencing symptoms of illness.  Employers of workers who travel extensively – may wish to delay or restrict travel for some period. 

Employers Must Employment Discrimination & Other Legal Compliance Risks

Many employers may want to evaluate and appropriately revise existing policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak.  Whether or not the disease afflicts any of its workers, businesses can anticipate the swine flu outbreak will impact their operations – either as a result of occurrences affecting their own or other businesses or from workflow disruptions resulting from safeguards that the business or other businesses implement to minimize swine flu risks for its workforce or its customers.  Many businesses also will want to prepare backup staffing and production strategies to prepare for disruptions likely to result if a significant outbreak occurs. 

Employers planning for or dealing with an H1N1 or other epidemic in their workplace should exercise care to avoid violating the nondiscrimination and medical records confidentiality provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), the Family & Medical Leave Act of 1990 (FMLA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and applicable state wage and hour laws, and other employment and privacy laws.

Improperly designed or administered medical inquiries, testing, vaccination mandates and other policies or practices intended to prevent the spread of disease may expose an employer to disability discrimination liability under the ADA or GINA.  For instance, the ADA generally prohibits an employer from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances permitted by the ADA. Likewise, improperly designed or communicated employer inquiries into family medical status which could be construed as inquiring about family medical history also may raise exposures under genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy mandates of GINA that took effect November 21, 2009.

During employment, the ADA prohibits employee disability-related inquiries or medical examinations unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Generally, a disability-related inquiry or medical examination of an employee is job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that:

  • An employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or
  • An employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.

This reasonable belief “must be based on objective evidence obtained, or reasonably available to the employer, prior to making a disability-related inquiry or requiring a medical examination.”

Additionally, the ADA prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and conducting medical examinations of applicants before a conditional offer of employment is made.  It permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations if all entering employees in the same job category are subject to the same inquiries and examinations.   All information about applicants or employees obtained through disability-related inquiries or medical examinations must be kept confidential. Information regarding the medical condition or history of an employee must be collected and maintained on separate forms and in separate medical files and be treated as a confidential medical record.  The EEOC Pandemic Preparedness In The Workplace and The Americans With Disabilities Act Guidance makes clear that employer inquiries and other H1N GINA’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” is likely to present a liability trap door for many unsuspecting employers H1N1 and other epidemic planning and response activities should be carefully crafted to avoid violating these proscriptions.

GINA’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” also could present a liability trap door for some employers designing pandemic or other workplace wellness, disease management or other programs.  GINA defines “genetic information” broadly as including not only information about genetic tests about an individual or his family member as well as information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of such individual, GINA also specifies that any reference to genetic information concerning an individual or family member includes genetic information of a fetus carried by a pregnant woman and an embryo legally held by an individual or family member utilizing an assisted reproductive technology.  For more information about the new GINA genetic information employment discrimination rules, see here.

As part of their pandemic planning, employers also generally should review their existing wage and hour and leave of absence practices.  Employers should ensure that their existing or planned practices for providing paid or unpaid leave are designed to comply with the FLSA and other wage and hour and federal and state leave of absence laws. Employers also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years.  If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, employers also need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, to protect the employer’s ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker’s compensation, OSHA and other safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements. 

Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the publication “Planning for the Pandemic” authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer available at hereFLU.gov is a one-stop resource with the latest updates on the H1N1 flu. An additional resource is CDC INFO, 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636), which offers services in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Schools, health care organizations, restaurants and other businesses whose operations involve significant interaction with the public also may need to take special precautions.  These and other businesses may want to consult the special resources posted  here

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending these or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and a nationally recognized author and speaker, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation, health and other employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment laws, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, health and other employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

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©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 

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