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Monkeypox: Impacting Employers

By Robert G. Brody and Mark J. Taglia

August 11, 2022

Employers and employees already weary of managing through a 2.5-year COVID-19 pandemic are now faced with a new outbreak, monkeypox. While most employers have gotten comfortable with the safety measures needed to protect their workforce against COVID-19, there is uncertainty in how to respond to monkeypox, including how to protect employees and limit employer liability.

First, some good news; monkeypox is very different than COVID-19. The monkeypox virus is not nearly as transmissible as COVID-19 and proven vaccines for monkeypox already exist, but employers should still take precautions to protect their workforce.

During this current outbreak, employers should be extra mindful of their employees needs and concerns and consider providing (i) time off (paid or unpaid) for employees to get tested, (ii) enhanced cleaning protocols, (iii) additional personal protective equipment in high-risk transmission areas and (iv) education to their employees on transmissibility of monkeypox.


What is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox was first detected in humans in 1970 and historically all outbreaks have been mostly centered around Central and West Africa.  While monkeypox is closely related to smallpox it is much milder and rarely has a fatal outcome with a survival rate of over 99%.  With that said, just like with the COVID-19 virus, individuals with weakened immune systems, young children and women who are pregnant and/or breastfeeding are at risk to having a more serious illness.

To date, there have been over 13,500 reported cases in the United States, with New York City being the most impacted city with over 2,500 cases as of August 18, 2020.


How is it Spread?

Initial reports detailed that monkeypox was usually transmitted through male/male intercourse and as such most individuals would not need to be overly concerned about the virus’ impact on themselves. However, as time has passed and scientist have learned more, we now know monkeypox can be spread through a variety of ways including direct contact with a monkeypox rash, scabs, or bodily fluids. It can also be contracted through contact with fabrics, and surfaces that have been touched by someone with the virus.  This is very different than what was first reported and may cause employers pause.

Doctors believe individuals remain contagious until the rash has healed which can last up to four weeks and have yet to determine if the virus can be transmitted if the infected party is asymptomatic or if it can be spread through respiratory secretions.

Employers can learn more about the virus, including signs, symptoms, transmissibility on the CDC’s website.


What’s an Employee to Do?

Employees concerned about monkeypox should get vaccinated. Employees should also practice limiting/preventing exposure:

  • Do not come to work if you have any signs and/or symptoms.
  • Avoid direct contact with people who have a rash (including hugging, kissing, or other skin to skin contact).
  • Do not share food or drinks.
  • Do not share towels or clothing.
  • Wash hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer after using the restroom and before eating or touching one’s face.


What’s an Employer to Do?

If an employer has previously implemented proper COVID-19 protocols, and those protocols are still in place, then there is little more for that employer to do.  On the other hand, if the employer has stopped using COVID protocols, then it may be time to brush them off.  Additionally, educate employees on the specifics of monkeypox, including facts on transmissibility and the signs and symptoms of the disease.

While many of the same protections apply for COVID-19 and monkeypox, evidence shows that it is highly unlikely for monkeypox to be transmitted at work (especially when proper safety measures are being taken).  However, even employers who take precautions and follow all appropriate safety measures can find themselves with a sick employee.  In such an event, there are several steps an employer can take:

  • Direct a sick employee to remain home and seek medical care.
  • Require an employee who confirms he/she has monkeypox to obtain a return to work note from a healthcare professional before returning to work.
  • Ensure eligible leave is provided to an employee until the sores have healed and a return to work note has been submitted.  Ensure that the leave provided is consistent with your existing company policies and complies with federal and state laws. 


Closing Thoughts

The monkeypox outbreak is in its early stages and how it may impact your business is very fact specific. Our goal here is to simply alert you to some of the key issues involved.  We urge you to seek competent legal counsel before applying these ideas to your specific situation. We stand ready to help you with any related issues.