Ask the Experts: Bed Bugs in the Workplace
Question: Our employee works in our call center with hundreds of other employees and she notified HR that she has a bed bug infestation in her home. We are concerned that she is exposing co-workers to this contagious pest at work and in her rideshare. What are our responsibilities?
Answer: According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is very unlikely that a bed bug infestation will develop in an office or other nonresidential environment. However, work and ride-sharing environments may serve as a means for bed bugs to spread from one employee to another, causing another unsuspecting employee to bring an infestation home. (Learn more about bed bugs here and here.)
You could consider offering paid or unpaid leave to the employee whose home is infested so that she can take care of the infestation. Generally, employers would need to establish a standard workplace policy to address this issue and other similar scenarios. Of note, this leave would not be covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because having bed bugs is neither a serious health condition nor an ADA disability.
Although it is not the employer’s responsibility, you may also offer to pay for an exterminator at the employee’s home in order to avoid bringing pests to the workplace. Additionally, and importantly, you should have a licensed professional come to your workplace to inspect for bed bugs and exterminate as necessary. A best practice would be to have the inspection (and extermination procedure, of course) performed outside working hours so as to not distress employees and protect their health. Workstations may also be relocated in an effort to ensure eradication of any future infestation until the extermination is complete. It’s important to keep the reporting employee’s privacy protected so that she is not singled out or made a target for discrimination in the workplace.
Finally, as you have knowledge of the infestation you need to take action to protect employees. As stated, the workplace should be thoroughly inspected for signs of the pest. Depending on the results, you may want to provide a brief statement that this is merely a notice of probable exposure, and if anyone notices symptoms contact HR or the appropriate member of management. Employees should be reassured that any reports of bed bugs or potential symptoms/sightings will be taken seriously without any retaliation and with all necessary confidentially protections in place. You can provide employees with information about bed bugs and encourage employees to report a problem if they notice bite symptoms. Employees with bites should be allowed to see the workers’ compensation provider for treatment.
An employer that takes proactive steps in this situation is likely to avoid workplace complaints or charges.