Commentary: Ebola Has Everybody Spooked; They’re Even Calling Me With Questions

Ebola has everyone spooked. I read this afternoon that a Dallas health care worker who handled one or more lab specimens from the Liberian man who died from Ebola is currently self-quarantined on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. It’s been 19 days since the woman came into possible contact with the virus; she’s shown no signs of the disease herself. The cruise line attempted to fly her (and a companion) back to the U.S. when the ship stopped in Belize. Unlike our federal government, the officials in Belize aren’t worried about travel bans; they refused to let the health care worker off the cruise ship. It remains to be seen whether the woman and her friend will finish out the cruise in their small cabin. Are folks overracting? Perhaps you think so; I’m not so sure. 

HR Query

I’ve taken two Ebola calls during the past two days, one serious and one not so much so. The serious inquiry was yesterday afternoon. It was from an HR official at a large, multi-national company, whom I’ve known for more than 25 years. He’s fully aware that my interest in employment law is (a) primarily academic and (b) limited to workers’ compensation matters, but he still calls me occasionally to bounce an idea or a question off my cranium.

His situation is somewhat like the cruise line. Speaking for a company that employs tens of thousands of people, he said:

Next Monday, we’ve got a guy returning from a foreign vacation. Now we don’t ordinarily keep track of where our folks go during their time off—it’s none of our business—but the employee emailed his supervisor to say that out of an abundance of caution, he wanted to be sure we knew that he’d spent most of his vacation in his birth country, Guinea [That’s, of course, the West African country where the Ebola outbreak first started]. What do you think we should do?

I said, “I think you should call your general counsel’s office—ask them.”

He replied, “We already have, but we haven’t heard back. We’re serious. Do you think it would be permissible for us to tell our employee to self-quarantine for the next three weeks? Many of our employees work remotely anyway; it would be fine with us if he did so, at least until the dust settles.”

I again reminded him that I couldn’t give him any advice. He called me back later to say that corporate management had indeed approved a “request” that the employee work remotely for the upcoming three weeks.

Reporter’s Query

The second call was from a business reporter of an East Coast newspaper that I won’t name, other than to say it isn’t located within a hundred miles of Durham, my home. Again, I’ve discussed workers’ compensation issues with this reporter for several years now.

He said, “Tom, have you seen the video of the folks that put Amber Vinson [one of the Dallas, TX nurses who has developed Ebola symptoms after helping in the treatment of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died October 8th]?”

I told him that I had. He added, “Did you notice that one of the guys helping the nurse off the cot was dressed in street clothes, while the infected nurse and the others had on hazmat suits?”

I indicated I hadn’t thought too much about it.

He went on, “Well, I think he was seriously underdressed. But here’s my question. He was walking around the nurse, checking things off. He even got on the plane and few to Atlanta with the nurse and her health care workers, all without any protection. If that guy gets Ebola, he can’t file a claim for workers’ comp, can he? I mean he deserves a “Darwin Award” [FYI, a tongue-in-cheek “honor”, apparently originating in Usenet newsgroup discussions in the mid ’80s, which recognizes individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death through their own actions].

I replied, “Bob [not his real name], not only can he file a claim—anyone can file a claim—he’d most assuredly recover comp benefits.”

“Workers’ comp doesn’t pay if you do something stupid, does it?” he continued.

I said, “Sure, ordinarily fault, either on the part of the employee or the employer, isn’t an issue.”

At least one report since the incident indicates the guy in street clothes was the medical protocol supervisor, responsible for watching over everyone else involved in the transfer process. He is apparently an employee of Phoenix Air, which operates the special air ambulances that have flown all five American Ebola patients from West Africa to the United States. The claim is that the guy with the clipboard actually makes the process safer. The hazmat suits severely limit the peripheral vision of those wearing them.

As they say, “who’d-a-thunk it?”

By the way, if you disagree about the compensability of the clipboard guy’s claim, drop me a line.

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