Should I stay or should I go? – The Economist (blog)

8 months ago Comments Off on Should I stay or should I go? – The Economist (blog)

READING official advice, it is difficult to know how seriously business travellers should treat the Zika virus. Health agencies in Britain and America, for example, have hedged their advisories. Britain’s National Travel Health Network and Centre is urging “pregnant women to consider avoiding travel to areas reporting active Zika transmission”. The American Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, suggests travellers “practice enhanced precautions” in more than 20 countries. Others have taken it a step further. India’s Health Ministry has told Indians to defer or cancel all “non-essential travel” to affected countries.

So should businesses scrap any planned work trips to the parts of Central and South America that are most affected by Zika? The answer here, unfortunately, is as complicated as the wording of the official alerts.

So much about Zika remains unknown. Most alarming seems to be a spike in microcephaly—abnormally small heads in babies born of women who contracted the virus. But even here, the World Health Organisation doesn’t go so far as to establish a definite link between the two, saying that “more investigation is needed”. Even less certain is the relationship between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes temporary paralysis. Zika’s transmission also remains poorly understood. There is growing evidence that the mostly mosquito-borne virus may also be passed on through sexual contact.

Companies that advise businesses on human-resource practices have so far urged caution rather than a complete abandonment of trips to Latin America. “An employer may want to consider expressly stating that its position is that travel to affected areas should be avoided, or even consider suspending all nonessential travel to these areas,” advises Business & Legal Resources’ HR website. “Employers should also be very lenient with changes to travel plans to affected areas and encourage alternatives to travel when appropriate.” The Society for Human Resource Management notes that America’s Occupational Safety and Health Act allows employees to refuse to work when doing so could cause imminent death or serious injury. The Zika threat may not clear that bar, and so employees could be disciplined for refusing a business trip to affected areas. As the Global Legal Post writes, “Employees at US companies lack legal avenues to refuse to travel to areas affected by the Zika virus or to sue their employers if they fall ill.”

All HR organisations seem to agree on one point: companies shouldn’t bar pregnant employees from traveling to Latin America for work. That would almost certainly violate anti-discrimination laws, at least in America. Instead, they should give all employees, regardless of gender or pregnancy, the option of avoiding travel to countries with Zika.

The airline industry offers an instructive example of how businesses are addressing the threat. A growing number of carriers have offered refunds or are rebooking customers who bought tickets to affected areas—but airlines are also giving their own employees a break. United, American, Delta, Lufthansa and Air France are allowing flight attendants and pilots to change their routes if they have concerns. United, for example, has offered those who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant the option of avoiding Zika-affected countries. Other big companies are also letting employees opt out of travel to Latin America. Chevron, for instance, is allowing its more than 64,000 employees avoid travel to Zika-affected countries with a doctor’s note.

Despite companies’ concern, Business Travel News reports that Zika hasn’t put much of a dent in business travel so far, although corporate travellers’ alert level has been heightened. That could change as the virus, and the fear surrounding it, continues to spread. Meanwhile, there are questions as to just how far Zika travel fears should extend. More and more cases of the virus are popping up in the United States, for example. Last week, the District of Columbia government confirmed three cases in the American capital. But those all came from visits to Latin America. The U.S. Travel Association, an industry group, has launched a Zika information website that states, “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that widespread transmission here is unlikely at this time, the association is prepared to activate our industry’s readiness efforts when and if needed.” Then again, with a stated mission “to increase travel to and within the United States,” the group could hardly be expected to take a more pessimistic line.

Still, amid the confusion, there’s a basic consensus forming when it comes to business travel to the areas hardest hit by Zika. If you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you should probably avoid making the trip. If not, you should arm yourself with knowledge and bug spray—although admonitions to avoid mosquito bites in Brazil or Costa Rica are about as useful as warnings to avoid traffic at rush hour. And if you’re an employer setting travel policy for your company, make sure that your policies apply equally to all employees, even if you think the risk they bear might be unequal. Zika is best avoided, but so is a lawsuit.

Should I stay or should I go? – The Economist (blog)

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