It's no longer just hospitals and health care companies that are worrying about whether their workers may have been exposed to Ebola.
FirstEnergy on Thursday said two of its employees will work from home with pay for 21 days after it learned they came in contact with the second nurse who contracted Ebola in the Dallas hospital where she worked. "We're just trying to do the right thing," Todd Schneider, spokesman for the Ohio-based energy company told CNBC, about the decision.
An increasing number of companies have been seeking legal advice on what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation. The answer may not be as simple as it seems.
"The most common question right now is: If I have a person returning from an affected country or a neighboring country, should I make them stay at home?" said Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips who co-chairs the firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice, who has fielded several calls from manufacturers with employees from West Africa.
The answer, generally, is no. While it may be tempting, doing so could set the employer up for a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They're better off following the lead of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, which recommends anyone who's traveled to an Ebola-affected area monitor themselves for symptoms for 21 days but doesn't impose movement restrictions. (If employees disclose they had close contact with an Ebola patient, however, that's a different story. Medical evaluation is recommended then, even if the person has shown no symptoms.)
Mavity recommends using the same questions the CDC asks—such as which areas they visited and whether they've experienced any of the known symptoms—and making sure the worker doesn't have a temperature. Some companies and boarding schools, he said, are actually taking such steps already and having a nurse take temperatures daily. But employers need to be wary of violating a worker's right to privacy or of exposing them to public embarrassment by singling them out, even if it's well-intended. "Do not say: 'Joe's okay; we're following protocol,' " Mavity said.
Employers should also be wary of questioning those who have ties to West Africa outside of the Ebola-affected countries on the CDC list with widespread transmission (Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone). Otherwise, they may get into issues of discrimination based on race or national origin, Thomas Benjamin Huggett, an attorney who specializes in workplace safety issues at law firm Littler Mendelson, told CNBC.
Co-workers' concerns should be handled gingerly, as well. "Generally the law is very insensitive about employers concerned about co-workers," Mavity said. Those rules harken back to the civil rights era, when companies tried to exclude black employees based on assertions their presence would upset their co-workers or customers.
"We've had this come up not just with Ebola. It's also been with tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV," he said, adding that the best response is to share information from the CDC and assure them the situation will be monitored. "Educate employees right now to disabuse them of any conspiracy-type notions," said Mavity.