Hot HR Topics In The Workplace

Recently, there have been several items in the news that are keeping HR professionals hopping!  In the alphabet soup of employment law, there are two “E”s that are at the forefront of employer concerns.

Ebola and the workplace

Occupational Health and Safety Risks

U.S. workplaces will generally fall into two areas of concern – healthcare workplaces and all other workplaces.

Within the U.S., healthcare workers are at the greatest risk of infection.  Because their workers may come into direct contact with Ebola, healthcare employers need to review their infectious disease protocols to ensure they are prepared for the specific risks associated with the virus.

The risk of business travelers becoming infected with the Ebola virus during a visit to the affected areas and developing the disease after returning is extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas in which primary cases have been reported.  Although the U.S. Department of State has issued warnings, it has not issued travel restrictions for these areas.

Preventing Ebola in the Workplace

Healthcare workers at all levels of the health system – hospitals, clinics, laboratories, health posts, laundries and transport – should be briefed on the nature of the disease and how it is transmitted, and strictly follow recommended infection control precautions.  All staff handling suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola or contaminated specimens and materials should use special personal protective equipment for working with biohazards, and apply hand hygiene measures according to WHO recommendations. If the recommended level of precaution is implemented, transmission of the disease should be prevented.

For all other workplaces, returning travelers are the primary concern.  Affected countries are requested to conduct exit medical screenings of all persons at international airports, seaports and major land crossings for unexplained febrile illness consistent with potential Ebola infection.  Nevertheless, returning business travelers from the affected areas should be notified of the symptoms and asked to be alert to their surfacing within 21 days after return.

Rights, Duties and Responsibilities of Workers and Employers

Employers, workers, and their organizations should collaborate with health authorities in the prevention and control of the Ebola outbreak.  Healthcare employers will have the greatest responsibilities in this area.  Healthcare and other employees have the right to remove themselves from a work situation that they have reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health. When an employee exercises this right, he or she must be protected from retaliation for expressing a safety concern.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, U.S. employers may make inquiries into medical conditions only where they are job related and consistent with business necessity.  Because there are not international travel restrictions and because the risk of transmission is very low, requiring a medical examination for returning travelers would likely not be considered a necessity.  Employers should be aware that the Public Health Department in each locality has the primary authority and responsibility in this area.  The Public Health Department will be tracking any illnesses and exposures and will notify employers when necessary.  Nonetheless, employees should be required to report to their immediate supervisor any situation in which they present a danger to their co-workers.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has accepted that addressing communicable illnesses is a legitimate area of inquiry.  Thus, requiring reporting diagnosis of a contagious illness (albeit without requiring specific identification of the illness) would be a legitimate action.

If an employee is actually diagnosed with Ebola, communication with other employees for the protection of their health and safety will likely be necessary.  In such situations, the medical privacy of the sick employee will need to be honored.  Employers should seek guidance from counsel and follow the direction of the Public Health Department in any such situation.

2015 Mid-Term Election Results

Regardless of your political persuasion, employers should be encouraged by the November election results.  Employers have borne witness to an increasingly aggressive and overreaching National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Department of Labor (DOL), and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, based on the shift in power, employers may breathe a little easier.

Now that Republicans in both houses can set the congressional agenda and will have subpoena powers, it means much more aggressive oversight of agency actions at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It also could trigger possible appropriations riders to prohibit or restrict funding to enforce certain regulations, such as the imminent NLRB “ambush election rules” and the Labor Department’s regulatory overhaul of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s Part 541 overtime exemptions for bona fide executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, and computer employees.

The newly-formed Congress could also pursue ways to limit the actions of the EEOC and DOL, which have initiated investigations and filed lawsuits against employers at a record-setting pace, despite being rebuffed by a number of federal courts for their aggressive tactics and sometimes legally unsupported contentions. Although President Obama maintains the power to veto legislation, Congress holds the purse strings. Limiting financial support to these agencies would severely curtail their recent conduct and may dull implementation of any new “employer unfriendly” initiatives.

Republicans proved that primary elections are important in selecting qualified candidates. Now, having been elected, Republicans have two years to prove they can govern before facing a much more challenging 2016 election.

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The information provided is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The information above contains only a summary of the applicable legal provisions and does not purport to cover every aspect of any particular law, regulation or requirement. Depending on the specific facts of any situation, there may be additional or different requirements. This is to be used only as a guide and not as a definitive description of your compliance obligations.