As the deadly coronavirus becomes a global pandemic, companies like Apple and Starbucks have stopped operating in China, and others, like Sony and Amazon, have pulled out of global trade shows like this month’s World Mobile Congress in Barcelona.
But some experts have cautioned that the threat of outbreak beyond China is unlikely, and not all firms are taking such precautions. This raises questions about what obligations companies have to their employees, and whether employees can refuse travel as the virus spreads.
The short answer, according to legal experts, is that workers can’t cite the coronavirus outbreak as a reason not to carry out their ordinary duties—including duties that involve general travel. While a federal law called the Occupational Safety and Health Act offers some protection to workers who refuse to work in the face of danger, those protections are unlikely to apply—at least for now.
Instead, the ordinary rules related to workers compensation are likely to apply to those who catch coronavirus on a business trip.
Law professor Jason Bent of Stetson University points to a 1989 case about a woman who contracted chronic respiratory illness after being exposed to Influenza B while traveling in Asia. The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled the woman was eligible for workers compensation because she was on work-related business, and the disease was not one she would have contracted in the United States.
For those who seek workers compensation after contracting coronavirus while traveling, the payout will not be lucrative.
“It’s not great shakes. It will cover your medical and a portion of your wages, but you can’t sue for pain or suffering or other claims available in tort law,” says Mark Neuberger, a senior lawyer at Foley & Larnder.
The level of benefits vary according to different states’ workers compensation laws and, in the case of death, the rules are no different than any other work-related fatality—providing at best a couple years of wages.
The only opportunity for an employee who contracts coronavirus to seek damages outside of workers’ compensation is if their company has behaved recklessly—such as by ordering them to Wuhan, the epi-center of the virus. According to Jonathan Segal, a partner at the law firm Duane Morris, the fact the U.S. State Department has issued a Level 4 advisory for China—a flat-out “do not travel” warning—means firms could face special liability in the event their employees contracted the virus.
For employees with a genuine fear of contracting coronavirus on a business trip, they can ask federal regulators to intervene under the OSHA law, but there is no guarantee they would succeed. If the request to travel comes with short notice, an employee could also try to rely on a part of the law that allows workers to refuse job duties if they believe they are in danger—though Bent believes they would be unlikely to succeed.
But while employees have a weak legal case for refusing to travel, this doesn’t mean companies won’t heed their wishes.
“There’s the legal answer but, from a practical management point of view, you don’t want to force people who are scared into doing something,” says Neuberger.
Segal echoed this sentiment, saying “it’s a horrible message to the workforce” to order employees to travel when they are fearful of a pandemic.
He adds that he has been fielding numerous inquiries from companies about how to address the coronavirus, but that most of these questions have been about how to help employees caught in quarantine zones or how to handle those returning from China.
In the case of returning employees, Neuberger advises companies to be flexible and to encourage them to work from home.
The coronavirus presents employers with another legal risk in the form of discrimination resulting from paranoia of the disease. Segal cites a situation where an employee refused to sit next to a coworker of Asian descent even though the latter had not traveled outside of the U.S. The employee’s boss—correctly—ordered the worker to sit in their original seat.
“It was based on fear, but it’s also unadulterated bigotry,” says Segal, adding that companies should be vigilant about the coronavirus giving rise to unjustified harassment.
For companies and employers looking for further guidance, the Department of Labor has published specific guidance about workplace issues related to pandemics.
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—WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak has disrupted global economy
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