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Lynne Curry: How should you respond to workplace Ebola fears?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 20, 2014

Q: One of our long-term employees is a hypochondriac and a hysteric but great at her job.

In September, when a severe viral respiratory illness infected thousands of children in Colorado, she bought hand sanitizers for everyone's desk and quarreled with those who didn't regularly use them in her presence.

The Ebola death in Dallas followed by the nurses' illnesses recently sent her over the edge. Yesterday another employee showed several co-workers photos taken by his father who recently returned from an African safari. "Cari" saw the photos, heard the word Africa and immediately left the workplace. She then texted me saying she wouldn't return until her co-worker was placed on leave and he and his father had medical examinations.

As an employer who likes Cari, what do I do?

A: Employees have the right to remove themselves from work situations if they have reasonable justification to believe an imminent, serious danger to their life or health exists. The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to provide employees a workplace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm." Employees who voice safety concerns have protection from retaliation.

Although Cari appears to be overreacting, she genuinely fears her co-worker might infect her. You don't, however, need to force an unneeded medical expense on your other employee. Call the Disease Prevention and Control unit operating out of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and ask if Cari can contact them directly. They'll tell Cari there are no cases of Ebola in Alaska and that Ebola doesn't spread as easily as many other infections, that it takes contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person. If Cari convinces them that her co-worker's parent needs testing, they'll take it from there.

You've labeled Cari a hypochondriac and a hysteric. Other employers take a similar risk when they describe employees as obsessive compulsive or bipolar. Managers who label employees using psychological terms create potential protection for these employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects employees "regarded as" disabled. As a result, you need to consider how you'll accommodate to Cari, possibly via the extended leave she likely wants.

Meanwhile, if Ebola spreads, you and other Alaska employers need to be ready to protect your employees. The CDCP tracks illnesses and exposures and will notify employers if necessary.

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to make inquiries into medical conditions if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Employers can require employees to self-report situations in which they present a danger to their co-workers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees that employers can legitimately ask questions concerning communicable illnesses.

At the same time, given that the risk of Ebola transmission is low and international travel restrictions have not yet been made, employers cannot require returning travelers to undertake a medical examination.

Finally, although employee medical information needs to be kept confidential, if one of your employees is diagnosed with EVD, you need to immediately communicate with all other employees to protect their health and safety.

Q: Our company uses Twitter to stay in touch with what's happening in our industry and markets our products through social media. For that reason, we're delighted when key individuals on our client companies' staff follow our twitter feed.

The problem is that several of them clutter our feed with low-value tweets but would get their feelings hurt when we don't follow them in return. How do other companies that interact with clients on Twitter handle this?

A: Our company only follows those whose feed we want to read; however, I'm aware you can follow others, click on the gear symbol and then select mute. The tweets of those you mute won't show on your feed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the state Department of Health and Social Services.