A Delicate Balance: Legal Exposure During the Ebola Crisis

ebolaWeeks after Nurse Kaci Hickox’s battles with the government of Maine over enforcement of a quarantine order, her personal predicament serves as something of a microcosm for larger questions about handling the Ebola situation and any other public health emergency in the workplace. Indeed, Hickox’s case puts us on notice that public health emergencies can extend to the workplace as well, with all that implies for both employers and managers.

In case you somehow missed the story, Nurse Hickox returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa only to find herself placed in involuntary quarantine in a tent in New Jersey. While few question whether the government retains the legal authority to impose medical confinement during public health emergencies, some wonder whether the government has gone too far. Others, of course, don’t think the government has gone far enough.

As an employer facing the possibility that workers have been exposed to Ebola, you may find yourself confronting the same conundrum as the government. While the topic has undoubtedly been politicized, it is also potentially very real. How do you protect the safety of your workers without violating their rights?

On a personal level, one is perhaps compelled to identify with Hickox, if only in sympathy with the ham handed execution of her mandatory New Jersey tent tenancy. But the fact remains that the government at all levels has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of all of its citizens and may find it necessary to take unpopular actions.

The complexities of the Hickox case in particular and the Ebola challenge in general parallel the challenges of an employer seeking to balance the needs of the business with the safety of employees. The latter consideration is magnified by the potential for legal liability, and could easily extend beyond the workplace and into the public sphere.

Furthermore, as a manager or owner your decision making process is constrained by a number of employment laws, including OSHA, Americans with Disabilities Act, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Workers Comp. Any one of these laws may contain a legal landmine that was not obvious at the time you were making decisions under pressure. Some may even appear to conflict with each other.

Clearly, the first step in preparing for this sort of crisis is to develop a factual and unemotional understanding of the subject. Considering the amount of hysteria floating around the Ebola story, that mission is somewhat challenging but nevertheless imminently doable.

In the case of Ebola, the fact remains that it is transmitted only through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids. In that sense, it is not super contagious. The tricky part of dealing with the disease is the twenty-one day incubation period, during which the individual is asymptomatic. Nevertheless, unless the disease mutates and becomes communicable through the air, the chances of a general outbreak in U.S. workplaces is relatively low.

Although the variables surrounding an Ebola emergency in your workplace appear manageable at this time, it is always useful to know what your legal options and obligations are in advance. To assist employers in this predicament, we have developed a webpage reviewing key employment laws in the context of potential public health threats. This discussion is not intended to be an in depth analysis of these laws, but rather to sensitize management and avoid any inadvertent violations.

To read more on this topic, please visit our webpage at

For more information and to review the CDC’s latest guidance, please go to the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola.