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Ith no sign of a vaccine in sight and indications that some patients are suffering relapses, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is fast becoming the first major epidemic of the twenty-first century. A potentially fatal form of atypical pneumonia, SARS is highly contagious and fells not just the frail and elderly, but also the young and otherwise healthy. As a result, United States — based companies with staff who travel to and from affected areas must devise policies to keep the workplace disease-free — and employees worry-free. Although to date there have been no SARS — related deaths in the U.S., hundreds of people in Asia and in Toronto, Canada, have gotten sick or died. Companies regularly doing business in these affected areas must figure out how to continue work without jeopardizing employees’ health. Invariably, in-house lawyers are on the front lines of creating their company’s policies. Here are some helpful tips: Business travel. All SARS policies should ban nonessential business travel to high-risk areas such as China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan and, possibly even Thailand, Malaysia, and parts of Canada. At a minimum, many businesses are requiring prior approval from a company officer or senior human resources representative for essential travel to these locales. If travel is essential, the company should ensure that employees are given information on SARS and should help workers get medical care if they develop any symptoms. Mandatory quarantine. SARS policies should include the imposition of a mandatory ten-day quarantine period, during which an employee who has traveled to an affected region (whether for business or vacation) must stay out of the office. The quarantine should start on the date the employee returns from the affected country. At the end of the ten-day period, employees should be required to obtain medical clearance before returning to work. Nonbusiness travel. Can a company prohibit an employee from traveling to an affected region on vacation? The answer is probably yes, if the impact of the ten-day quarantine period on business would be too great. In those circumstances, the company should offer to reimburse the employee for any cancellation costs. Wages and salary. If a company requires an employee to stay at home after a business trip to an affected country, the leave should be treated as an authorized paid absence from work. Similarly, if an employee booked a vacation to an affected country prior to the announcement of the quarantine policy, the quarantine period should be treated as an authorized paid absence from work. Vacation. The authorized paid leave should not be deducted from the employee’s vacation entitlement. An employee who books a vacation to an affected country with full knowledge of the quarantine, however, may be required to take the ten-day period as unpaid leave or additional vacation time. Work from home. Quarantined employees may be required to work from home. Companies should have private networks to provide secure access to corporate data and applications, and should be ready with plans for acquiring, leasing, or renting laptop computers. Businesses should also update their employee contact lists, so those working at home can connect. Expatriate staff. Staff located in the affected regions should be allowed to come back to the U.S. temporarily, to the extent that business permits. New employees. Companies should verify that new employees have not visited affected regions during the ten days prior to their start date. Manager and supervisor training. A company must communicate its SARS policy to managers and, as with all policies, provide training and support for them. For example, managers should be trained to deal with employees who say that they are not going to come to work because of the fear of contracting SARS. Unless there is a “reasonable” basis for such fear, the worker can be required to report to work or face termination. Protective equipment. In rare instances, a company may want to provide protective equipment to ease fears about contracting SARS at work. Such fears may arise if an employee has been diagnosed with SARS or recently returned from a trip to an affected region. As of mid-May, there had been no reported SARS deaths in the U.S. But if a SARS death does occur here, employee fears of exposure in the workplace will no doubt increase. Employers will face other challenges, too. For example, employees might not be able to come to work for a number of reasons, including taking care of children while schools are closed, the shutdown of mass transportation, and quarantines. Companies should think now about how their emergency plans can address these concerns. Businesses should charge one department (usually human resources) with disseminating this critical information. While the main goal is to make sure that the workplace is safe, companies should beware of accidentally panicking their employees. Businesses should develop worst-case scenarios for operations and determine what steps would be necessary if a SARS outbreak occurred in their workplace or geographic area. These plans should include identifying community resources that can assist in the case of an outbreak, such as the police, fire department, hospitals, and disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross. Companies should also research relevant postemergency services — such as data recovery, conservation of damaged documents, and sources for protective clothing. The threat of SARS has caused widespread fear. A company’s most important job is to maintain a safe environment for its employees. By instituting a SARS policy that includes the provisions discussed above, employees will be assured that their well-being is their employer’s top priority. For the latest information on SARS, visit the following Web sites: -redcross.org/services/disaster/beprepared/busi_industry.html who.int/csr/don/en/ www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars Claudia M. Cohen is a partner in the labor department at Epstein Becker & Green. Her e-mail address is ccohen @ebglaw.com. Jessica Grossman, an associate at the firm, assisted in the preparation of this article.

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