Travel Risk

Businesses Prepare for Zika Threat

Employers face liability risks if the child of a traveling or expat female employee is infected.
By: | March 23, 2016 • 4 min read

As the Zika virus continues to spread, businesses are considering risks and reviewing their insurance coverage.

While Zika is not yet pandemic, experts say the disease could pose risks to employees, operations, and even clients, both abroad and in the United States.

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A survey of 321 respondents by the U.S. State Department in February found that 38 percent of U.S. multinationals, nonprofits and universities were allowing female employees to defer travel to or to leave regions impacted by the virus.

The biggest threat from the Zika virus is to pregnant women or those in their child-bearing years. Scientists are investigating a potential link between the virus and microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads and developmental problems. The CDC advises pregnant women to consider delaying travel to areas with Zika.

With no known vaccine available, the Centers for Disease Control is predicting more than 4 million cases in the Western Hemisphere alone.

Patrick McDermott, an associate with the law firm of Hunton & Williams, LLP, in McLean, Va., has been contemplating risk and insurance implications should the disease spread to the United States.

More than one-third of U.S. multinationals, nonprofits and universities allow women employees to defer travel to or to leave regions where Zika virus has been reported.

He has yet to hear of any insurance cases involving direct liabilities related to the disease but said it’s something employers should be cognizant of.

So far, the Zika virus has largely been limited to Latin America and the Caribbean. As of mid-March, the CDC reported 258 travel-associated infections in the United States.

While there have yet to be any locally acquired vector-borne cases, data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center revealed that 50 U.S. cities could be at risk of Zika outbreaks.

Using information on climate, air travel, mosquito breeding patterns and socioeconomic factors, researchers determined some of the most vulnerable cities include Miami, Orlando, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta and New York.

“It’s something to at least think about. You never know what’s out there, especially for a developing risk like Zika where there could be creative arguments to access certain [insurance policies],” says McDermott.

Currently, the biggest risk is to companies that have operations in or send their employees to Latin America.

Scott Lockman, director of commercial insurance at Clements Worldwide, said that while Clements has many clients with business operations in Latin America, “things have been relatively quiet because it’s not pandemic in nature.”

For most healthy adults, contracting Zika is not a serious concern and is something Lockman said should be handled by workers’ compensation or medical programs.

The virus is of special concern to the hospitality industry. –Christian Ryan, U.S. hospitality and gaming practice leader, Marsh

The symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis, but Zika’s impact tends to be mild. The CDC said “most people infected with the virus won’t even know they have the disease because they won’t have symptoms.”

“If you’re a normal healthy person and get [Zika], it’s going to be regular [medical] treatment and nothing unusual that would be excluded under a normal medical program,” said Lockman.

At this point, most of Clements’ clients have been working to educate their expatriate population as much as possible about the risks associated with Zika, he said.

Employers should identify at-risk areas and ensure that employees understand the risks, the symptoms of the disease and how to reduce their exposure. “You educate people and you give them choices,” he said.

Female Employee Risk

Mark Lies, labor and employment attorney and partner at Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, in Chicago, said companies could expose themselves to liabilities if they force a female employee to travel to an infested area and she gives birth to a child with physical or mental defects.

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Under Section 11 C of the Occupational Safety & Health Act, employers cannot take any adverse action against an employee who refuses to work if they feel they are in imminent danger, he said.

“I would not force [any pregnant woman] to travel to a Zika area. Once a fetus is born it has its own rights as a person and can file [a] own lawsuit against anything caused by a third party,” said Lies.

The virus is of special concern to the hospitality industry, said Christian Ryan, U.S. hospitality and gaming practice leader at Marsh.

Ryan said his firm is advising hospitality clients to educate employees and guests, and to prepare in case Zika comes to the United States.

“It’s a constantly evolving thing as the CDC continues to come out with new guidelines and recommendations,” he said.

Craig Guillot is a writer and photographer, based in New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected]

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