Why SARS Could Hurt Your Business

When it comes to the threat of SARS, balancing employee rights and safety is essential to everyone's health--including your business's.

By Jodie Carter

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Nothing upsets the apple basket like threats of bioterrorism andcontagious diseases. Last year, business owners added anthrax, WestNile, mad cow and, most recently, SARS, to their long list ofthings to worry about. Even though transmission rates for SARS arelow compared to the common cold or influenza, the scary part is, ifyou get it, there's a chance you could die.

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised itsestimate of the SARS fatality rate from 4 percent to 14 to 15percent, incorporating data from the latest cases in Canada, China,Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. But so far, defining a generalrate of fatality has proved elusive, because victims' odds ofsurvival depend on the area of the world where treatment wasprovided and on other factors such as their age and health.

"More people die every year of the flu than SARS,"says Stephen Weatherhead, associate attorney for Mintz Levin Cohn FerrisGlovsky and Popeo PC in Boston. The fear factor can causepeople to make poor choices, says Weatherhead, who advises businessclients on everything from managing an actual SARS outbreak tofending off litigation from fearful employees.

Fear of catching the potentially fatal disease, along with fearof litigation from affected employees, has become a big issue forbusinesses that require travel to destinations such as Hong Kongand Singapore that have documented SARS cases. According toWeatherhead, if a traveling employee turns up with SARS and thengives it to a buddy in the next cubicle, then yes, that affectedemployee will get paid through worker's compensation."That's a given," says Weatherhead.

Here's where it gets dicey: What if a business owner needsan employee to go on an urgent trip to Toronto and the fearfulemployee hedges? According to Weatherhead, an employee has alegitimate right, as outlined by the Occupational Safety &Health Administration (OSHA), to reject any assignment that posesan imminent threat. "If the employer takes [disciplinary]action," says Weatherhead, "the employee can file [suit]under OSHA."

But the quandary doesn't stop there. What if your bestaccount executives just got back from a sales trip to Hong Kong andthey turn up with a few common SARS symptoms--fever, headache andshortness of breath? If you send them home for the recommended10-day isolation period, making them miss out on big commissionsfrom a conference later that week, Weatherhead warns, they may beable to sue using the Americans with Disabilities Act becausethey're being penalized for a perceived disability. On theother hand, if you don't send a contagious employee home, thencoworkers, or even customers, may be able to sue for recklessendangerment.

So how does a conscientious employer get out of this"damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma?"There's no real right answer," says Weatherhead."The key is for the employer to act quickly, effectively andappropriately--to not overreact, because every case might be alittle different." The trick is to balance the employer'srights with those of the employee. Some general SARS guidelines foremployers:

  • Restrict business travel to Asia and other places held suspectby health organizations like the WHO and the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention.
  • Require employees to regulate their temperature and placethemselves under active 10-day surveillance and voluntaryquarantine after any contact with a probable SARS case.
  • Telecommuting or teleconferencing are often better options thanmaking a suspect employee come to work.
  • If a 10-day isolation period is deemed necessary, it'sbetter to pay an employee for their time off than to risklitigation.

Next Step

Information on everything fromSARS symptoms and managing an actual outbreak to daily traveladvisories can be found on the Web sites for the World HealthOrganization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) or on the CDC hotline at (888) 246-2675.

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