Learning from Ebola

By Carol Harnett/Benefits Columnist

As the media noise and gratuitous headlines of the Ebola scare die away -- and since the most thoughtful decisions are made when people are calm -- now is the best time to address the topic as it pertains to your organization.

An education policy should be the first step in any epidemic policy. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are reliable sources and willing partners for employers. A nonessential business travel ban to areas affected by a virus is also a key initial step. Most employers with operations in West Africa, however, didn't limit personal travel. Some companies requested employees report personal travel or mission work to the endemic area.

In my experience, quarantine and the ensuing questions about salary are the most angst-filled debates around an epidemic.

On the one hand, employers often want to err on the side of caution when it comes to worker safety -- leading to a desire for employees to remain home while self-monitoring. But many stories were reported about the misguided shunning of people perceived to be at risk for contracting the Ebola virus, reminiscent of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

As an HR executive, you need to help your company decide how the business is going to compensate employees who are quarantined. Standing policies for the use of sick time, vacation or paid-time-off provide adequate financial coverage for people who are ill when quarantined. They can also transition to your short- or long-term-disability policy once they've satisfied the waiting period (if your company has a disability policy in place).

The bigger question is how to handle employees who are quarantined -- or asked to self-quarantine -- when they have no symptoms of the virus or disease. Companies with a West African presence decided to pay the workers they requested to self-monitor for 21 days. And Gov. Cuomo indicated New York State would pay people whose companies did not compensate them while in quarantine.

Employees who are not sick -- yet are asked to remain home -- are not eligible for sick time or short-term disability. So it is important to decide, before the issues of potential epidemic and quarantine come up again, how your company will address compensation.

Some employers claimed no financial responsibility for employees who chose to volunteer in West Africa as part of a medical mission. If a company believes this is the correct course of action, its quarantine policy should state this. Before the next medical crisis arises, companies should also establish whether the health plan will cover experimental treatments related to epidemics.

Lastly, if a company decides to increase its reliance on telework during an epidemic, it should lay out the policies and procedures in advance, and also test the feasibility of this approach through crisis-management simulations. This approach allows businesses to test the gaps between the strategy development and execution in advance of the next epidemic.

Carol Harnett, an expert in the field of employee benefits, can be emailed via http://about.me/carolharnett.

Feb 11, 2015
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