Zika Is Forcing Uncomfortable Workplace Conversations

Bosses and companies must balance health with privacy.

The Zika outbreak is creating complicated situations in the workplace as bosses, employees and entrepreneurs try balancing health and safety with privacy rights.

The virus, which spread across Latin America and the Caribbean last year, poses severe risks of birth defects in the offspring of pregnant women and couples who are trying to conceive. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns pregnant women not to travel any area with Zika, and advises other travelers to take measures to avoid mosquito bites and use a condom during sex.

Employees may feel that in order to skip a business trip to a country affected by Zika, they'll have to reveal an early pregnancy or plans to conceive before they're ready to tell the boss. Before Zika, such conversations rarely occurred in the workplace.

Georgia Beattie, 30, got trapped in just such an awkward situation last year. Beattie owns a successful wine company in Australia and had been invited to speak about entrepreneurship at a United Nations youth conference in Colombia. Though not pregnant, she declined the invitation after consulting with doctors, because she may choose to have a child in coming years.

"There was part of me that thought that I was being overcautious and that I was giving up on an opportunity," said Beattie, who wants to expand her company into South America. It didn't help that others on the delegation didn't seem to consider Zika to be a legitimate health threat, according to Beattie.

"The delegation was predominately men, and it was dampened down to not really be an issue,” said Beattie. “My reason for not going wasn't taken as seriously."

Janine Santos holds her 3-month-old son Shayde Henrique who was born with microcephaly while health workers visit her home in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.
Janine Santos holds her 3-month-old son Shayde Henrique who was born with microcephaly while health workers visit her home in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

Business travelers, of course, have more opportunities to protect themselves from the mosquito-borne virus than the millions of people dwelling in the affected areas. Though there may be professional consequences, business travelers typically have the option of postponing a meeting or skipping a conference if they’re uncomfortable with the risk.

Still, the threat is real. So far, five babies born in the United States have had birth defects linked to travel to areas affected by Zika, and 265 pregnant women show evidence of an infection, according to the CDC.

"Today" show anchor Savannah Guthrie, who’s pregnant and worried about contracting Zika, put a human face on the issue by publicly discussing her decision not to cover the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, one of the worst-hit areas. Several athletes also announced they won’t compete in Rio because of Zika.

Savannah Guthrie of the "Today" show will not travel to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Olympics in August.
Gilbert Carrasquillo via Getty Images
Savannah Guthrie of the "Today" show will not travel to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Olympics in August.

But many employees and bosses might grapple with how to make the decision, or even how to open a conversation. In some cases, a firm’s clients need to be informed, too.

That’s what happened to Anne H., a 31-year-old graphic designer from Richmond, Virginia. She had been asked by her consulting firm to travel to Brazil to meet with clients in April, but learned in January that she was pregnant.

"I wasn’t ready to tell work that I was pregnant yet, because I had some issues early on in the pregnancy, so I just told [my manager] that we were trying and that I wasn’t comfortable taking the risk,” Anne said. “My company is very flexible when it comes to balancing work [and] life, and I’m so incredibly appreciative that I could say I wasn’t going and leave it at that.”

Managers find their options constrained. An attempt to respect the privacy of employees of childbearing age by assigning a trip to an older colleague, or to one who’s announced intentions not to have kids, could run afoul of anti-discrimination rules, said Patricia Anderson Pryor, an attorney in employment law and disability for the law firm Jackson Lewis. “That would create more of a risk liability-wise,” she said. “The government has said you cannot restrict an employee’s opportunities.”

The best course of action for companies, according to experts, is to seek volunteers for travel to areas hit by Zika, and to abide by the evolving guidance laid out by the CDC.

Employees who don’t want to travel shouldn’t have to explain their decision, said Gabby Molinolo, a health and infectious disease specialist for risk management firm iJet International. While pregnant people or those in their childbearing years have the most to fear from Zika, they aren’t the only ones with reason to be wary of the virus; older adults may have weaker immune systems and thus may be more vulnerable to either the infection or complications like Guillain-Barre syndrome, Molinolo explained.

“Giving an option without disciplinary consequence, an option for an out for all men and women without having to explain the reason why ... is probably one of the best, more passive and more open approaches,” said Molinolo.

Of course, in some professions, travel may be an essential part of the job, adding yet another factor for consideration in the workplace. Several international airlines have allowed flight staff who are or may become pregnant to request reassignment from routes to areas with Zika transmissions, Reuters reported.

Female members of the U.S. military who are pregnant can request to leave their outpost, delay deployment or return early from deployment, but approval of any of these requests is at the discretion of the servicewoman's commander.

"This guidance applies only to pregnant individuals," said Maj Roger Cabiness II, a Department of Defense spokesman. "Other women, including those of childbearing age considering pregnancy, are advised to contact their health care provider as well, and to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines."

At last count, 15 active duty service members have confirmed Zika virus infections, and two pregnant service members had been relocated away from areas with active Zika transmissions.

It's unclear exactly what responsibilities fall onto a company if an employee becomes infected during a business trip. Some lawyers said it would be plainly covered by the wide parameters of workers' compensation programs that entitle employees to medical treatment, a portion of lost wages and other benefits. That program often covers workers hurt on the job, say from a fall or a burn, but It also covers sickness.

Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor, said it's easy to envision a legitimate lawsuit directed at a company by an employee who becomes infected. Asking employees to sign waivers or negotiating additional compensation might reduce the chance of a dispute later, he said.

“You could argue that your employer knew they were sending you into a grossly, excessively risky situation, so they should be treated not just as an accident, but as willful wrongdoing by your employer,” said Armour.

At last count, there had been seven babies born in the United States with microcephaly or other Zika-related birth defects and five lost pregnancies attributed to the virus. All cases were travel-related.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the most recent report on babies born in the U.S. with Zika-related health problems.

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