California employees who travel internationally for work may wonder what their rights are when it comes to traveling to countries where the mosquito-borne Zika virus is prevalent. Because the Zika virus is linked to birth defects, pregnant women and their partners are cautioned to be particularly careful. However, under federal law, a company cannot forbid pregnant women or their partners from traveling to areas where there is an outbreak.
Employers do have an obligation to educate all of their employees about the risk and not just women who are pregnant or of child-bearing age. Precautions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that should be shared with employees include using insect repellent and wearing clothes that cover arms and legs. It may be possible for pregnant women to refuse to travel to affected areas.
However, employers are under no obligation to remove workers from areas where an outbreak has already occurred. Employers can offer relocation, but questioning employees about whether they are pregnant or intend to become pregnant is discriminatory. Such precautions may be ultimately impractical anyway since the virus is expected to spread into the United States. Furthermore, employers cannot require employees to submit to medical examinations or quarantines after being in the affected areas because the risk at present probably does not justify such an action.
In a situation like that created by the Zika virus that is both rapidly changing and new, employees and employers alike may be confused by legalities, and in some cases, those legalities may not be precisely defined. Workers who are unsure about their employee rights and what may constitute prohibited retaliation on the part of an employer may want to speak to an attorney about the situation.