What to do? Some questions and answers about handling measles concerns in the workplace

Associated Press

A boss who's worried about an outbreak of measles in the workplace needs to tread lightly.

Reports of a growing number of measles cases have employers wondering what they should be doing. But federal and state laws can limit their ability to require workers to be vaccinated. And it may be risky to even ask staffers whether they've gotten a measles or other type of vaccination.

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News about a measles case in the New York City area has clients calling human resources provider Alcott HR Group seeking advice, said Bob Byrnes, director of risk management with the New York-based company.

"They're asking, what can they do? Can they go up and ask people if they're vaccinated, or if their children are," Byrnes said.

Some questions and answers about measles and the workplace:

Q. Can an employer require workers to be vaccinated against measles, or any other disease?

A. Legally, an employer can tell workers they must be vaccinated, but doing so puts them at risk for lawsuits under federal and state laws designed to shield workers from discrimination and protect their privacy.

Workers might bring lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which prohibits discrimination on medical grounds in the workplace. If they have religious beliefs that forbid their being vaccinated, they can also sue employers for discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Employers should weigh the risks of mandating vaccinations or even asking about them before proceeding," says Audrey Mross, an employment law attorney with Munck Wilson Mandala in Dallas.

Q. What about people who work in health care or who handle food? Can they be forced to be vaccinated?

A. Employers in these industries may have more legal leeway in telling workers they need to be vaccinated. But even those workers cannot be forced to have vaccinations. There have been lawsuits against hospitals who tried to mandate vaccinations, and the health care facilities backed away from the requirement, Mross says.

If health care workers refuse to be vaccinated, they're likely to be assigned to work that doesn't involve contact with patients, Alcott HR Group's Byrnes says.

Q. Why is it a problem to ask workers if they or their children have been vaccinated?

A. Laws including the ADA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act are designed to protect workers' privacy. Protection under federal law extends to a worker's family.

Q. What if employees suspect that a co-worker has measles and ask the boss about their health? What should an employer do?

A. If an employer is aware of a staffer's illness, the boss cannot discuss the worker's health with other employees, Byrnes says. Even if a staffer has gone public about an illness, an employer is still bound by the ADA and HIPAA not to reveal any information about it.

What employers can and should do is educate staffers about how to prevent the spread of disease.

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Follow Joyce Rosenberg on www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg