Diversity & Inclusion

Are you obligated to notify employees of coworker out on leave with contagious illness?

by H. Mark Adams

Q An employee recently came to HR and said she has meningitis. She is now out on leave. What is our obligationif anyto notify other employees?  Woman with flu

A As someone who has survived meningitis during my professional career, I have more than passing knowledge about this subject. It’s highly unlikely that any employee diagnosed with meningitis would have the capacity to “come to HR” to tell you she has meningitis and ask for a leave of absence. Given the seriousness and potentially life-threatening nature of the illness, it’s more likely the employee would have been sent straight to a hospital without having the time to tell you anything. So the first thing you should do is send your employee or her healthcare provider the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) medical certification form to be completed and returned within the time allowed to confirm whether she does in fact have meningitis.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t be too concerned about any obligations to notify other employees and risking unnecessary widespread panic. According to my medical references, although meningitis is contagious, it isn’t as contagious as either the common cold or the flu, and it cannot be transmitted simply by breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.

H. Mark Adams is a senior partner in Jones Walker’s labor relations and employment practice in New Orleans, Louisiana. He may be contacted at madams@joneswalker.com.

3 thoughts on “Are you obligated to notify employees of coworker out on leave with contagious illness?”

  1. Seriously? Yes, FMLA paperwork is essential. And yes, an employer cannot just start calling employees’ physicians to inquire about specific diagnosis and yes an employer cannot divulge employees confidential medical status to other employees. BUT, a reported case of meningitis to an employer requires more than simply ignoring the presences of a possibly HIGHLY contagious pathogen.

    There is a significant difference between non-bacterial meningitis and bacterial meningitis. Yes, an employee with bacterial meningitis probably won’t be visiting the work place to report the illness and request time off as they will probably be whisked to the hospital post haste…BUT NOT ALWAYS. Bacterial meningitis, as with all cases of meningitis present much like nothing more than the flu for the initial hours or day of infection, but proceeds quickly to a life threatening disease, meaning that an employee could very easily come to the work place while ill and have no idea how sick they actually are. Further, bacterial meningitis spreads through the respiratory system and is MORE contagious than the cold or flu (per the Mayo clinic) and is easily transmitted to people living or working in large groups in close proximity to one another for long periods of time (call centers, firehouses, care facilities, etc.)

    Viral meningitis (as well as other types of meningitis) is not generally considered contagious at all…and often results in a considerable period of disability but not generally in the hospital, with recuperation often taking place in the home. Employees diagnosed with viral meningitis could well walk into the place of employment to notify the employer of the diagnosis and request leave.

    Telling an employer what amounts to “ignore it” is dangerous beyond belief and borders on malpractice. If the employee was not specific as to the type of meningitis, then an employer who operates a place of employment where such contagion is likely to spread quickly should call the local health authorities to notify, request more information, and possibly to investigate the type of meningitis involved. In most states meningitis, or some of the various forms of meningitis, are mandatory reporting diseases/conditions so the local health authorities should be able to tell the employer what appropriate, legal, steps to take.

  2. There has been a recurrence of diseases such as whooping cough and measles which have great danger for those who are around small children. So would you notify co-workers who have been exposed to whooping cough and may be around small children in their personal lives?

  3. The headline doesn’t specifically state meningitis, it states contagious illness in general, which is what caught my attention. Some years back we had a group of information technology consultants (approximately 30 people) who were working onsite, but came from another country. Within the group of consultants, they had one case of TB after another. The Center for Disease Control had to be notified, a generic notice had to be dessiminated to all the employees onsite, and everyone who had exposure to this group of consultants had to have a TB test conducted (offered onsite, administered by the CDC). Those employees then received notices letting them know if they were negative or positive. No names were given out, all notification was in generic terms, but testing (and notification) was required. I realize this is an uncommon incident – yet we didn’t expect it to happen at our site, and it did. Just for your information.

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