Athletes worried about Zika can skip Olympics, but what about tech workers?

071116blog zika olympics

Golfer Jordan Spieth announced this morning that he will not play in the Olympic Games because of concerns over the Zika virus, meaning the world’s top four players in his sport have now opted out of going to Brazil. Savannah Guthrie, who hosts Today on NBC, will not be there either. The golfers are self-employed and need answer to no one, while Guthrie is pregnant. All enjoy the power of celebrity.

But what of the rank-and-file employees who work for major technology companies sending large contingents to Brazil to provide services and show off their wares? Are they being asked – or compelled -- to ignore the risks? Conversely, could women of child-bearing age be denied the opportunity to go at an employer’s discretion? We asked a number of vendors and an expert in employment law.

Cisco is an official supporter of the Olympics and devotes a special section of its website to its participation, including a countdown clock (25 days and change).

“Zika has not impacted our plans, nor our participation,” a Cisco spokesperson says via email. “We are aware of it and we have provided information and preventative measures for our employees, including links to (the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization). As always, employees have the ability to decline travel to any region if they have any concerns.” 

Has anyone declined to go?

“We’re not in a position to confirm whether employees have opted out (that is between them and their manager), but we provide for that option.”

General Electric is another Olympic partner providing extensive technological support in Brazil.

“GE has over 100 technical staff to support projects around the Olympic Games,” says a GE spokesman. “GE leaders and global medical teams are closely monitoring the Zika situation and following guidance issued by health authorities such as the WHO.”

Have any GE employees decided against traveling to Brazil?

“No GE employees have opted out of going, but GE employees are free to opt out at any time.”

A Microsoft spokesperson says “the company does not have anything to share” on this topic, while Samsung and Panasonic did not respond.

Patricia Pryor, an attorney at Jackson Lewis P.C. in Cincinnati, addressed these issues in a piece for The National Law Review earlier this year. I asked her if she has heard of any instances in the intervening months of conflict between workers and their bosses.  

“I am not aware of any particular situations where employees have been prevented from going or forced to go to an area where the Zika virus is prevalent,” Pryor tells me.  “Certainly employers can decide that no one is going to travel for (the company) to a certain location, but they cannot decide to only prevent pregnant employees or women of child-bearing years from whatever work opportunity is present in one of these areas if they allow others to go.”

However, the decision-making is not always simple or clear-cut, Pryor says.

“Employers are wise to be flexible with travel requirements to Zika-infested areas when they can and when doing so is reasonable. However, there are some jobs where the purpose of the job and/or the essential functions of the job require travel to these areas.  If it is not reasonable or possible to delay travel to the area, an employer generally can require employees to travel.”

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And then there are the unwritten, unspoken and maybe even unintended pressures on employees to step up and do their jobs – even among the mosquitos in Brazil – because there are important business considerations at stake and/or higher-ups to impress.

Jordan Spieth and his fellow golf stars can just say no, thanks, and stay home.

Others face more complicated decisions.

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