Many organization have different rules for approving and paying for time off when an employee is too sick to work. Benefit plans like these don’t get much attention—until there’s a flu outbreak and everyone seems to get sick at the same time.
In the name of productivity, employers expect employees to come to work—sometimes regardless of whether the employees are well or sick. But few organizations provide incentives for sick employees to stay home when suffering from flu or other contagious conditions.
This year’s flu season, however, is causing U.S. companies and human resources professionals to take a second look at their sick leave practices.
Since 2008 it’s been an employer’s job market with a glut of available talent in the marketplace. By 2010, pay scales for new jobs and open positions in American corporations had ratcheted back 15 to 30 percent, depending on location and industry. At the same time, most employers slashed most every category of employee benefits, including sick leave.
Even before the 2008 economic downturn, many employers were changing leave policies by combining vacation time, floating holidays and sick leave into one category or “bucket” of leave and calling it “paid time off.” The new model offered clear advantages: managers were no longer saddled with monitoring employees' use or abuse of sick leave; and tracking and administration of leave got simpler for company payroll and information systems departments.
In converting to paid time off plans, employees sacrificed a day or two total leave each year but gained flexibility in how their days off could be used. One of the unanticipated outcomes of this type of leave plan is that more employees come to work when they are sick.
This is especially true in a bad job markets and rough economic times when employees are constantly concerned about losing their jobs, and cannot afford loss of pay for scheduled workdays.
The result? Employees with the flu have been showing up for work and sharing their germs with co-workers. This year’s strain of influenza reportedly lasts longer than the norm, often keeping employees out of work for more than a week.
With 47 states reporting high incidences of flu, employers are struggling with staffing issues related to the epidemic. The Associated Press reported the affects of absenteeism on a Ford dealership in Indiana where half of the 70 employees have been out sick in recent weeks.
On January 11, the Centers for Disease Control reported influenza in the United States had officially reached epidemic proportions. On January 12, New York Governor Cuomo declared a public state of health emergency as the state faced its worse outbreak of flu in several years. Hospitals in some states have begun turning away flu sufferers from emergency rooms.
As many employers begin to rethink current sick leave policies, here are some suggestions to consider—for immediate and future implementation:
- Onsite and free—Next fall offer free flu shots at work for employees.
- Offer an incentive — Employees who get a free flu shot at work receive an extra day of paid leave in the following year.
- Masks—Flu sufferers who must come into the workplace for any reason will be required to wear a mask and have only limited access.
- Regular reminders—During flu season, employees in every work environment should be reminded to wash hands regularly and refrain from touching nose, mouth and eyes.
- Send sufferers home—Employees who come to work with obvious flu symptoms will be sent home.
- Work from home—If practical, employees who are still symptomatic but feel well enough to work should be allowed/encouraged to work from home.
- Implement social distancing measures.
Social distancing includes practices such as:
- Facilitating conference calls and teleconferences in place of face-to-face meetings in offices and conference rooms
- Avoiding shaking hands to reduce risk of cross-infection
- Communicating sneeze and cough etiquette—to reduce infection rates, carry and use fresh tissues and always cover mouth when coughing, preferably with a tissue, or hand or inside of elbow. Wash hands promptly.
- Keeping work areas clean; regularly wiping down phone, desk, chair arms, etc.
Strategic plans this year should include a review of current sick leave policies to assess their strengths and weaknesses:
- Evaluate the policy’s effectiveness during influenza outbreaks.
- Review best practices for effective sick leave policy design.
- Solicit input and ideas for keeping employees healthy during flu season, reduce risk of cross-infection in the workplace, and maximize productivity during epidemic outbreaks.