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What you should be telling employees about monkeypox right now

August 10, 2022, 12:58 PM UTC
Monkeypox has yet to be declared an occupational hazard, but some say it's time for leaders to share how they’re assessing the situation.
Solskin—Getty Images

Good morning—Amber here! Today, Fortune’s Paige McGlauflin digs into how leaders can and should communicate about monkeypox in the workplace. It’s a tricky conversation for sure, but employees are looking to their employers for guidance. Read on below. 

COVID-19’s sudden arrival left employers scrambling to inform workers of safety protocols and set policies in place. More than two years later, another virus threatens to do the same. 

There are now over 7,500 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S. Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared it a public emergency, and states like California, New York, and Illinois have declared their own state of emergencies. With the pandemic still fresh in employers’ minds, many wonder what protections they should be implementing at this point, if any. 

So far, there are no workplace-specific responses required for monkeypox, and neither the CDC nor OSHA have declared the outbreak an occupational hazard. For now, employment lawyers advise companies to keep tabs on government guidance as the disease progresses.

“When it comes to infectious diseases, we always advise employers to track what the CDC recommends and go forward with that,” Adam Young, a partner and workplace safety and health attorney at Seyfarth Shaw, tells Fortune. “At this point, the CDC has not declared this to be an occupational hazard—outside of healthcare—that employers need to be responding to.”

But that doesn’t mean employers should keep workers in the dark on how they’re assessing monkeypox’s spread, preventative measures, and what it means for the workplace.

“The first step is to make sure that the workforce is properly educated on what the symptoms are. That’s going to be incredibly important for keeping monkeypox out of the workplace and containing and mitigating the threat,” says Michelle Strowhiro, a partner and employment law attorney at McDermott Will and Emery

Communicate basic information about the disease, including its symptoms and how it spreads, and distribute existing resources. SHRM has shared a memo template for HR executives, and Fortune recently published an article debunking several myths about monkeypox.

Employers should also address sick leave for infected employees. According to the CDC, the incubation period for monkeypox is roughly one to two weeks, and illness typically lasts between two to four weeks. A monkeypox infection can be four times longer than the average seven days of sick time employees receive annually.

Companies that offer hybrid options might want to lean on remote work for infected employees who feel well enough to continue working. On the flip side, infected employees might need to take medical leave, entitling them to accommodations under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

While the surge in monkeypox cases might understandably feel like déjà vu, there is a silver lining for HR executives: much of the muscle built in responding to COVID—from sick leave policies to vaccine mandates—will be helpful in creating a fleshed-out monkeypox response.

“Now’s the time to evolve [your] COVID-19 policy into a greater safety policy that includes monkeypox, and covers the symptoms of monkeypox and protocols of what to do if you have symptoms or test positive,” says Strowhiro.

Employers should also be vigilant about stopping workplace harassment or bias stemming from misinformation, especially toward gay or bisexual men. Though most confirmed monkeypox cases have been in men who have sex with men, anyone is susceptible to infection. HR executives responding to anti-LGBTQ misinformation on monkeypox can mirror their responses to COVID-19 misinformation and harassment against Asian and Asian American employees.

HR professionals are already trained to handle sensitive and confidential medical information, but they should make the company’s policies expressly clear. For instance, how it plans to notify colleagues who were in close contact with an infected person. HR heads should also be transparent about what companies won’t disclose, such as the infected employee’s name and any privileged information.

Finally, people leaders should ensure their responses are rooted in science. Young recommends referring employees with additional questions to agencies like the CDC. “To the extent [that] we’re providing information, we want to base it on the most solid scientific information being put out by reputable government sources,” he says.

Paige McGlauflin
paige.mcglauflin@fortune.com
@paidion

I want to hear from you! What are the biggest HR challenges and priorities today? Reach out to me at amber.burton@fortune.com. I’m hosting 15-minute desksides with HR and DEI executives. You could see your response in a future newsletter.

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