Health Care

Working in Zika’s backyard: Local businesses field concerns from employees

Wynwood's, Zak the Baker, (Zak Stern) lights a stick of dried sage to add to his "Go Away Zika" Zika shrine outside of his popular Wynwood bakery Thursday morning. Stern is trying to make light of the Zika situation that has affected his walk-in store's daily business.
Wynwood's, Zak the Baker, (Zak Stern) lights a stick of dried sage to add to his "Go Away Zika" Zika shrine outside of his popular Wynwood bakery Thursday morning. Stern is trying to make light of the Zika situation that has affected his walk-in store's daily business. emichot@miamiherald.com

In Wynwood, where art meets entrepreneurship, the reverberations of a local Zika scare can be felt in shops, tourist stops — and even the workplace.

The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control issued its warning early this week: pregnant women should stay out of Wynwood, the one square-mile area identified as the reservoir for most local cases of the mosquito-borne illness. But that recommendation has been particularly challenging for pregnant women and other employees who work in the affected area and want to heed federal advice. As of Thursday, 15 people had been infected with the virus, 12 in Wynwood.

It has left employers not just in Wynwood, but throughout downtown, grappling with requests to work from home, inquiries for schedule changes and questions on how to keep the virus at bay while working in Zika’s backyard.

For some, the answer has been to stay away.

Hannah Gonzalez, a morning radio host at electronic music station Revolution Radio in Wynwood, started working from home in Fort Lauderdale after the Wynwood area was identified as ground zero for the first Zika outbreak in the continental United States. Gonzalez is nine-and-a-half months pregnant with a son, who she is naming Jack.

It was better for me to cut my losses and make sure I didn’t risk getting sick at the end [of my pregnancy]

Hannah Gonzalez, morning show host at Revolution Radio in Wywood

“My doctors told me it was best to stay away,” Gonzalez said. “I contacted my program director and we both decided together it just wasn’t worth the risk.”

The station’s music director, Uvi Hernandez, said adjusting Gonzalez’s schedule was a non-issue. In fact, the station encouraged it.

“She was cool with coming in because we can park her close to the loft, but we just went ahead and told her to stay [home],” Hernandez said.

The decision reflected an abundance of caution, Gonzalez said, because the greatest risk of having a newborn with a birth defect is for women who contract Zika during the first two trimesters of their pregnancies. However, recent studies have indicated that Zika can also affect fetal development in the third trimester.

“It was better for me to cut my losses and make sure I didn’t risk getting sick at the end,” Gonzalez said.

Handling a pandemic, such as Zika, from the perspective of an employer involves relaying information and staying ahead of developments with the disease, said Nancy Green, who leads global risk management firm Aon’s infectious disease unit. The firm helps employers develop a pandemic plan and then tweak it to the specifications of each disease.

“As an employer, you have an opportunity to think about how the event can unfold as it continues to develop and think about how your message might change as things move to the next level in the Zika action plans,” Green said.

Informing employees, particularly those in the at-risk population such as pregnant women for Zika, helps mitigate some of the fear mongering that is bred by disease outbreaks, Green said.

“When people feel like they understand the lay of the land, that takes the fear out,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to maintain a balance in focus and you minimize the potential for impact on the business.”

And it’s in employers’ best interest to be vocal when employee well-being is at stake, said Kevin Vance, a labor employment attorney in the downtown Miami office of law firm Duane Morris.

Vance said several clients have come asking about how to tackle the Zika issue in the workplace since the local infected area was identified late last week.

“You want to show your employees you care because that will go a long way in convincing your employees that you have good motivations,” Vance said. “If I had a business in Wynwood and I had a pregnant employee working for me and she didn’t want to come into work, I would not want to be the employer that makes her come into work and later finds out she contracts Zika.”

Vance said he expects the issue will become more complicated in the coming weeks if the spread of the virus persists because employers will be faced with more requests to adjust work hours; they may even field refusals to work if the labor is outdoors. Employers won’t be able to pick and choose which workers are allowed to work out of the office, for instance, because that would constitute discrimination, Vance said.

“Those are going to be difficult to deal with, and employers are going to deal with those on a case-by-case basis,” Vance said. “There is not any bright-line answer.”

When people feel like they understand the lay of the land, that takes the fear out. It’s an opportunity to maintain a balance in focus and you minimize the potential for impact on the business

Nancy Green, leads global risk management firm Aon’s infectious disease unit

Zika will also likely affect Wynwood businesses at the point of sales, said Tony Argiz, chairman and CEO of accounting firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra (MBAF).

In Wynwood, tourism industry payrolls increased by 31.2 percent between early 2010 and late 2015, Argiz said, and retail employment has grown 21 percent in the same time period. What happens to Wynwood businesses will have a domino affect across Miami, he said.

And although local MBAF offices are outside the Wynwood area, in Brickell and Coral Gables, the firm is looking into compressing the work week into four days to help at-risk employees who want to come into the office less.

“If this thing goes on three or four weeks, we will look at our flexible arrangements,” Argiz said. “It’s something we will have to offer to more people, especially women who are expecting so that they reduce the number of days they are out on the street.”

In Wynwood, the Zika scare has already led to the temporary closure of outdoor event space Wynwood Yard, changes to tour bus schedule stops and increased security. But most businesses are still closely monitoring Zika’s development and many haven’t had to field employee requests — yet.

We are a business, we can’t just flinch and react to every little thing that comes up

Zak Stern, owner of Zak the Baker in Wynwood

Adam Darnell, owner of Boxelder Craft Beer Market bar, said he keeps repellent at the bar for employees and guests and if one of his employees asked for time off, he would give it to him. At Zak the Baker, owner Zak Stern said sales have been down while his staff has tried to remain optimistic — but cautious. He has a “Go Away Zika” shrine outside the bakery and spoke to Gov. Rick Scott Thursday as the governor toured the area and spoke to local businesses.

“We are a business, we can’t just flinch and react to every little thing that comes up,” Stern said. His wife, who is pregnant, also works at the bakery.

Amparo Tojeiro, who is a legal assistant at Legal Services of Greater Miami’s Wynwood office, said no one in her office has asked to work from home yet, but she is staying in the office all day and avoiding venturing outside. The company sent out an email with CDC guidelines for Zika titled “IMPORTANT INFORMATION” on Wednesday.

At Radio Revolution, employees park close to the office and they’re in and out fast.

“We wear a lot of DEET,” said music director Hernandez. “That’s the perfume of the week here.”

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