Infectious Diseases and the Workplace
Getting sick can sometimes cause far more problems with your employer than you might imagine. Can you be fired for getting sick, or forced to stay home when a family member is sick? What do you do if you contract a serious contagious illness? What can employers do when there is an identified health risk or pandemic in the news, like swine flu, Ebola, or measles? It is important for workers and employers alike to know what employment actions are lawful in the face of serious illnesses, and how individuals and companies can protect themselves when infectious diseases are going around. For more information about infectious diseases and the workplace see below:
- I caught the flu. Can my employer fire me just because I am sick?
- Do I have to call my employer if I will miss work due to being sick with the flu?
- Can my employer fire me for not getting myself or my child a flu shot or vaccination?
- How can I avoid getting sick at work? How can I prevent giving co-workers my cold?
- I have been hearing a lot in the news about infectious diseases such as Zika, Ebola, and Measles. What are they?
- I have been hearing a lot in the news about infectious disease COVID-19 (coronavirus); what is it?
- Am I at risk of contracting the coronavirus?
- What are the symptoms or warning signs of the COVID-19?
- What can I do to lower my risk of getting sick with COVD-19?
- What should I do if I get sick with COVID-19?
- If I have an infectious disease and have to miss work, am I protected?
- I am not feeling well and want to call out of work. How much information can my employer ask me about my condition?
- Can my employer force me to stay home from work if I, or one of my family members, contracts an infectious disease?
- If my employer forces me to stay home from work due to a fear of spreading an infectious disease just because a family member is ill, will that count as part of the 12 weeks leave under FMLA?
- Can employers discriminate against workers that just emigrated from a nation were a specific infectious disease is prevalent, due to a fear of that infectious disease?
- I am of Asian descent and my employer and coworkers have been avoiding me treating me differently, saying that I have COVID-19; what can I do?
- Is my employer allowed to require employees to adopt infection control practices to combat an infectious disease?
- Can my employer force me to supply personal safety equipment to prevent the spread of disease?
- Can my employer make me wear personal protective equipment (e.g., face masks, gloves, or gowns) meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19?
- Does my employer have a duty to protect me from an infectious disease at work?
- My coworker has been constantly coughing throughout the workday and I’m worried about getting sick, should I inform my supervisor?
- Is my employer allowed to track whether I or my family members have contracted an infectious disease?
- When I come back to work, can my employer to require doctors’ notes certifying my fitness for duty?
- Can my potential employer require me to undergo a medical examination after being hired, but before I start work to determine if I have been exposed to an infectious disease?
- Can my employer require me to work from home, when my family and I have no symptoms, in order to prevent the spread of an infectious disease?
- If I am quarantined, what information can my employer share with my coworkers?
- Is my boss required to grant me leave if I have been quarantined due to an infectious disease?
- Do employer-instituted quarantines or temporary shutdowns or mass layoffs entitle workers to unemployment benefits?
Typically your boss may fire you for missing work due to the flu, but it depends on the seriousness of the flu symptoms you have. If the flu makes you very sick and causes non-typical health complications, it may be illegal for your employer to fire you. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees by stating that certain employers may not fire employees for missing 12 weeks or less of work due to serious illness. While it is very rare for courts to prevent employers from firing employees due to the flu, courts have granted FMLA protection to employees that caught the flu and had severe reactions. To determine if the flu counts as an FMLA covered condition, certain factors must be met. The most important factor is that your flu must be considered a "serious health condition." The flu may count as a serious health condition if the following occur:
- It prevents you from being able to complete essential functions of your job for four or more consecutive calendar days;
- It causes you to visit a healthcare provider at least twice, and the visits must be in person and not over the phone follow-ups;
- It requires you to receive continued treatment;
- Even if your doctor advises you to stay home for a week, if the other FMLA conditions are not met, the flu is not considered a serious health condition.
Yes. While FMLA does protect sick employees, you still must call your employer and follow any call-in procedure your employer has established. However, if your illness is sudden and prevents you from calling your employer immediately, then you may not need call in immediately, so long as you DO call in as soon as reasonably possible. If you fail to do so, you will not be given FMLA's protection.
Yes. Generally, your boss may make it a job requirement that you be vaccinated and remove the risk of exposer to infectious disease. If your employer creates such a policies, your employer may fire you for failing to vaccinate yourself or your children. Your employer may assume that having an unvaccinated child could lead to an unreasonable risk that you could catch the flu or another illness, and as a result, your employer is legally allowed to fire you.
There are some exceptions. The first exception is if you hold a religious objection to shots or vaccines. Another exception is if you have a disability that makes receiving shots or vaccines dangerous. Finally, if you have a pre-existing employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, your employer cannot require you to receive new vaccinations.
Many employers do not require employees to receive flu shots. Typically only medical employers require them. In fact, most state laws require medical professionals to receive vaccinations and flu shots. For a full list of state-mandated hospital, employment vaccinations check out the CDC's list of requirements.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC"), the best option to avoid the flu is to get the flu shot, and the best way to avoid other infectious diseases is to get the corresponding vaccination. For other contagious illnesses do the following:
- Avoid close contact with others when you, or they, are sick;
- Stay at home when you are sick;
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze;
- Washing your hands often, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds;
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands (this is an important step to avoid catching the flu);
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects at work.
For more information about stopping the spread of germs at work, refer to the CDC website.
5. I have been hearing a lot in the news infectious diseases such as Zika, Ebola, and Measles. What are they?
Zika is a virus spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. It can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, causing certain brith defects. At present, there is no vaccine or medicine for Zika. Symptoms of Zika may include fever, rash, headache joint pain, conjunctivitis, and muscle pain, lasting from several days to a week. If you suspect that you may have been affected, a blood or urine test can confirm Zika infection. The CDC advises that you see a doctor or healthcare provider if you develop symptoms.
To prevent Zika infection, the CDC recommends protecting yourself from mosquito bites. You may do so by using an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)- registered insect repellant containing one of the active ingredients: DEET, picardin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
Ebola is a rare and deadly disease that was first discovered in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some nations have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of individuals with Ebola. Recently, there have even been a few rare scares of Ebola in the USA. To avoid catching Ebola the CDC recommends:
- Washing your hands with soap or hand sanitizer;
- Avoid contact with blood and body fluids;
- Do not handle items that came into contact with infected blood or body fluids;
- Avoid bats and nonhuman primates, their blood, their fluids, and their raw meat;
- Avoid funeral rituals that handle bodies of those that died from Ebola;
- For the latest information about Ebola, see the CDC Ebola page.
Measles is a disease that, in the early half of the twentieth century, lead to the hospitalization of 48,000 people and the death of 400 to 500 people per year. In the year 2000, the CDC declared that measles had been eliminated in the USA because it had not been transmitted for 12 consecutive months. This success was attributed to the success of vaccination policies for school-aged children. However, recently, measles has again begun to break out in parts of the USA.
To avoid catching measles the CDC recommends:
- Get an MMR vaccination
- The CDC states that it there is no link between the MMR vaccination and autism
- Most children have no side effects from the vaccination
Measles is very contagious. You can catch it by being in a room where someone with measles breathed within the last two hours. Nearly everyone that doesn't have a vaccination will catch measles if they are exposed to the measles virus.
For more information about Measles see the CDC measles page.
6. I have been hearing a lot in the news about infectious disease COVID-19 (coronavirus); what is it?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different types of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those originally infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
Not necessarily. According to the CDC, some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness. This includes:
- Older adults
- People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
- Heart disease
- Lung disease
If you are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of your age or because you have a serious long-term health problem, it is extra important for you to take actions to reduce your risk of getting sick with the disease.
Pay attention for potential COVID-19 symptoms including, fever, cough, and shortness of breath. If you feel like you are developing symptoms, call your doctor. If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately. In adults, emergency warning signs:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion or inability to arouse
- Bluish lips or face
*This list is not all inclusive. Please consult your medical provider for any other symptom that is severe or concerning.
Have supplies on hand
- Contact your healthcare provider to ask about obtaining extra necessary medications to have on hand in case there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in your community and you need to stay home for a prolonged period of time.
- If you cannot get extra medications, consider using mail-order for medications.
- Be sure you have over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies (tissues, etc.) to treat fever and other symptoms. Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.
- Have enough household items and groceries on hand so that you will be prepared to stay at home for a period of time.
- Take everyday precautions
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Take everyday preventive actions
- Clean your hands often
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, or having been in a public place.
- If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- To the extent possible, avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places – elevator buttons, door handles, handrails, handshaking with people, etc. Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your hand or finger if you must touch something.
- Wash your hands after touching surfaces in public places.
- Avoid touching your face, nose, eyes, etc.
- Clean and disinfect your home to remove germs: practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces (for example: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks & cell phones)
- Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation if there are people in the crowd who are sick.
The CDC encourages employees with symptoms of acute respiratory illness such as fevers or cough to stay home until they are without symptoms for at least 24 hours.
Call your healthcare provider and let them know about your symptoms. Tell them that you have or may have COVID-19. This will help them take care of you and keep other people from getting infected or exposed.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), covered employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for serious medical conditions. Whether any infectious disease is considered a serious medical condition will depend on the disease and the degree to which it affects you. When there is a fear of a nationwide pandemic, and the spread of a disease makes the news, employers are likely to consider the illness serious medical condition.
12. I am not feeling well and want to call out of work. How much information can my employer ask me about my condition?
CDC recommends that employers not require a note from employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness because health care providers may be extremely busy responding to other health needs.The ADA prohibits employee disability-related inquiries or medical examinations; however, employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing COVID-19, such as fever or a cough and shortness of breath. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.
13. Can my employer force me to stay home from work if I, or one of my family members, contracts an infectious disease?
Yes, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer may force an employee to stay home if the employer believes that the employee will pose a direct threat to the workplace due to having or being exposed to, a serious infectious disease. This includes employees that are still willing and able to work. Many diseases are very infectious. For example, the Measles virus can be caught if you enter a room where an infected individual was located thirty minutes ago. Sometimes the best way an employer can prevent the threat of exposure to all employees is to require one employee to stay home from work.
14. If my employer forces me to stay home from work due to a fear of spreading an infectious disease just because a family member is ill, will that count as part of the 12 weeks leave under FMLA?
No, if an overly cautious employer forces an employee who does not have an infectious disease to stay home from work, this time cannot be charged against the employee's 12-week entitlement under the FMLA. As a general rule, employers are not allowed to charge employees with FMLA leave when that leave is required by the employer.
15. Can employers discriminate against workers that just emigrated from a nation were a specific infectious disease is prevalent, due to a fear of that infectious disease?
Employers may not discriminate against an employee based on the employee's nationality. During the swine flu pandemic, the EEOC released a short comment on their website indicating that any discrimination based on nationality, even if based on an honest fear of the swine flu virus, would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For more information on discrimination against employees from abroad, see our site's page on immigration status discrimination.
16. I am of Asian descent and my employer and coworkers have been avoiding me treating me differently, saying that I have COVID-19; what can I do?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” National origin discrimination involves treating people (applicants or employees) unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background. It can also involve people being treated unfavorably because they are married to (or associated with) a person of a certain national origin. Discrimination can occur even among people of the same national origin. If you feel that you have been discriminated against or harassed because of your national origin, see our page on filing a complaint.
Employers cannot treat or discriminate against an employee based on his/her national origin. As more cases of coronavirus are confirmed, employers may want to pay attention to any concerns that Chinese employees are being subjected to disparate treatment or harassed in the workplace on the basis of national origin. If an employer has sufficient reason to bar a certain employee from the workplace, it cannot be because of national origin; however, if that employee, no matter his or her race or national origin, was recently in Wuhan and/or has shown symptoms of the virus, a legitimate reason may exist.
17. Is my employer allowed to require employees to adopt infection control practices to combat an infectious disease?
Yes. Requiring infection control practices is not only a good idea during a disease pandemic, but also does not implicate any violation of the ADA. Additionally, an employer is allowed to require personal protective equipment designed to combat the spread of an infectious disease. If an employee needs a reasonable accommodation in order to use certain safety equipment (e.g. latex allergy) then an employer must provide it to the employee.
No. If your employer has determined that personal protective equipment is required for the worksite, then it is the employer's responsibility to make sure that it is provided at the job site.
19. Can my employer make me wear personal protective equipment (e.g., face masks, gloves, or gowns) meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19?
The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear some type of mask to protect themselves from respiratory disease, including COVID-19. The CDC does recommend that surgical masks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19. If an employee shows symptoms or has been diagnosed with COVID-19, however, the CDC recommends that the employee be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately, thus negating the need for a mask as an accommodation.
Yes. According to OSHA, the law that requires employers to provide a safe workplace, your employer does have a duty to protect you from recognized hazards. However, there is no specific duty that details what an employer must do to protect you from an infectious disease.
21. My coworker has been constantly coughing throughout the workday and I’m worried about getting sick, should I inform my supervisor?
Yes. If an employee arrives to work showing signs of an acute respiratory illness (such as cough or shortness of breath) or becomes sick during the day, the CDC recommends that the employee be separated and sent home immediately. Advising such workers to go home is not a disability-related action if the illness is similar to seasonal influenza or COVID-19. Additionally, the action would be permitted under the ADA if the illness were serious enough to pose a direct threat.
22. Is my employer allowed to track whether I or my family members have contracted an infectious disease?
It depends. Typically employers cannot force you to tell them if you have a disability or a sickness that others are not at risk of catching. However, under the ADA, during a pandemic, an employer may require employees to disclose whether they or their family members have been exposed to an infectious disease.
23. When I come back to work, can my employer to require doctors’ notes certifying my fitness for duty?
Yes. These questions are allowed under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the employee was believed to have COVID-19, and it were truly severe, your employer would be justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees.
24. Can my potential employer require me to undergo a medical examination after being hired, but before I start work to determine if I have been exposed to an infectious disease?
Yes, the ADA does permit potential employers to require medical examinations of entering employees after they have already extended an offer of employment. However, employers cannot administer these medical exams in a discriminatory fashion and must require these medical exams from all new employees in the same job category.
25. Can my employer require me to work from home, when my family and I have no symptoms, in order to prevent the spread of an infectious disease?
Under the ADA, if there is an outbreak of a serious health concern, then employers are allowed to require employees to work from home. However, employers are not allowed to single out employees to work from home.
If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. Employers should not, however, disclose to co-workers the identity of the quarantined employee because confidentiality requirements under federal law, such as ADA, or state law may apply.
Many states do not have laws preventing employers from firing someone who is quarantined by the state, so long as there is no contract or union agreement. However, the some states do have laws that prevent employers from firing any employee or any full-time employee. However, some states do have laws that prevent employers from firing any employee or any full-time employee. For more information on state laws regarding quarantine, visit our Workers' Rights During Public Health Emergencies page.
28. Do employer-instituted quarantines or temporary shutdowns or mass layoffs entitle workers to unemployment benefits?
Yes, workers are generally entitled to unemployment insurance if they are furloughed when a business temporarily shuts down and all other unemployment requirements are met. Depending on the size and length of the temporary shutdown, the jurisdiction may require notification to the applicable unemployment department as a mass separation. For more information visit our Workers' Rights During Public Health Emergencies page.
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