As Zika looms, a question arises: Who gets to telecommute?

IT firms, and others, face a quandary about how to respond to worried workers

Florida’s announcement Tuesday that a locally transmitted Zika case turned up Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, moves reported cases of the virus a little closer to Georgia. That’s where Maria Stephens, who is pregnant, works as a senior data research analyst.

Stephens was initially skeptical about Zika and paid little attention to the headlines about it.

“I don't really respond to dramatization and felt that things were possibly being blown out of proportion,” said Stephens. “I'm a statistician at heart and only listen to numbers, so when my quant-minded OB-GYN shared the figures with me, this threat became a lot more real."

Stephens works two days a week in her Atlanta office, thanks to an accommodation made by her employer because of her pregnancy. She asked that her firm’s name not be used. But with the potential Zika threat, she worries that even those two days may be too much. If mosquito-borne Zika arrives in her area, Stephens doesn’t want to go to the office.

Minimizing the risk

Many employees will want to minimize their risk of contracting the virus, which can cause birth defects. For some, this may simply mean generous use of bug spray. Others may believe that working from home is their best defense; that's when complications arise.

“You can't just let some employees stay home, and not others,” said Ben Huggett, a labor and employment law attorney at Littler Mendelson in Philadelphia. Employees who can’t work from home may be “very disgruntled employees,” he said.

Staying at home doesn’t really materially reduce the risk of a mosquito bite, unless you never leave the house or open the door for anyone, argues Huggett. The broader issue for employers is about fairness and uniformity of treatment for all employees.

“When an employee is allowed to do something that another employee is not, that’s when people are upset and true legal claims are made,” said Huggett.

Federal laws don’t appear to offer much help. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard allows someone to reject taking a business trip or coming into the office only if there is the risk of imminent death or serious injury, said John Schifino, partner at Burr & Forman in Tampa, Fla. This makes it difficult for employee to say that he or she isn’t going to come into work because of Zika.

But Schifino suggests that when dealing with pregnant employees or a partner who may be pregnant and doesn’t want to work in the office, this is an “accommodation that you should probably make.”

Flexibility is important

The arguments for accommodating workers -- especially those of childbearing years -- will be powerful.

“Being pregnant is already complicated and difficult,” said Stephens. “It's wonderful in many ways, but ultimately it's stressful and there is a lot of pressure on the mother to do everything possible to keep that baby safe. Zika poses a whole new level of stress, where something that is potentially out of my control may cause the most harm. That feeling of the unknown, the lack of control on the situation, on top of everything else that worries you when you're pregnant, is very overwhelming.

“My advice to employers would be to respect the wishes of pregnant women and understand that they may not feel like they have the option to ask to telecommute,” said Stephens. “Many pregnant women in the workplace share that they are just too hesitant to even bring it up, for fear of being judged or seen as dramatic."

Zika is still so new in the U.S. it’s hard to know just how employers and employees will react. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first mosquito-borne cases in Miami in early August. St. Petersburg is about 270 miles away.

The first neighborhood identified in the United States for mosquito-borne spread of Zika virus happened to be Miami’s technology hot-spot, Wynwood. This former warehouse district is now a trendy arts and entertainment area and home to tech firms such as LiveNinja.

Will Weinraub, the CEO and co-founder of LiveNinja, which makes a communication app that allows businesses to message their customers, says the company has a flexible policy on telecommuting. But Zika hasn’t changed how employees use it.

“People telecommute and show up in the office just as regularly,” said Weinraub. “It’s really business as usual."

Tourism takes a hit

It is tourism that is taking a hit, he said.

Zika has had an impact on Wynwood. Foot traffic from out-of-towners is down, said Brian Breslin, founder and co-founder of Refresh Miami, an entrepreneurship community of more than 9,000 people that holds ongoing education, conference and networking events. His firm has had to make adjustments.

Breslin has heard of pushback by some employees at tech firms who don’t want to come into the office, and said companies are being more permissive about allowing telecommuting.

For his part, “we have been shifting more of our events away from Wynwood, just because all the events that are currently scheduled for Wynwood have seen more than a 50% attrition rate,” said Breslin.

Many employers have the ability to make telecommuting widely available, and may even have plans in place to rapidly scale support for such a shift as part of an existing pandemic response plan.

Scott McPherson, the CIO of the Florida House of Representatives who has also been involved in state pandemic planning efforts, said it’s not a stretch to imagine precautions challenging CIOs -- especially those who have to manage pregnant workers in Zika zones.

IT has to adjust

If these IT workers aren’t accommodated, they might stay home home and use up leave, said McPherson.

“Zika is positioned to take a toll on IT,” said McPherson, “and all CIOs – especially those in Florida and in the Gulf States -- should bone up on their work-at-home strategies and the social distancing portion of their pandemic plans, especially for pregnant workers and those workers who anticipate trying to have a child in the foreseeable future of both sexes.”

The millennial generation will likely bear the brunt of the Zika problem.

Stephens said that when she talks “with fellow working pregnant women in their 20s, Zika seems to be top of mind nowadays. But I've noticed the conversation doesn't change when talking with stay-at-home moms either.

“You will see a lot more numbers-focused conversations with women working in technology, who are more concerned with how many women, percentage of birth defects, percentage of travel related versus locally spread cases, things like that,” said Stephens.

The CDC has recommended that some people should now avoid travel to areas of Florida where Zika has been found.

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