6 Q&As: Managing Flu Season in the Workplace

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6 Q&As: Managing Flu Season in the Workplace

With flu season in our midst, many employers face challenges in managing sickness in the workplace. These challenges can include managing absenteeism, reducing or managing the prevalence of sickness in the workplace, supporting employees who must care for sick children, and in more rare cases, dealing with longer-term medical issues. Here is a Q&A guide on some of your most frequently asked questions related to these topics.

Q: How many sick days do employers typically provide?

A: On average, organizations usually provide 6-8 paid sick days annually, though many employers incorporate sick time into a paid time off bank.

Some industries tend to provide more sick time, particularly healthcare and non-profit organizations, which typically offer double the amount of sick time that other organizations provide.

Q: How should we handle pay for exempt employees who are sick?

A: Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), if an exempt employee misses less than one full day of work due to illness, you may not deduct his or her pay for the absence. This means, if they go home early or come in late due to illness, you may not dock their pay. Conversely, with hourly employees, your organization may deduct pay for any hours not worked due to illness, including a full day or less than full day.

Also, under FLSA, your organization is not obligated to provide pay for vacation or sick days (unless other state laws mandate this). Nonetheless, many employers provide these benefits to help handle pay situations when employees are sick.

Q: How can we prevent sickness from spreading in the workplace?

A: The workplace can be fertile ground for sickness to spread with employees working in close proximity to one another, especially common colds and flus. Here are a couple common ways to reduce the likelihood of this happening:

  • Provide flu shots once a year
  • Encourage sickness prevention via hand sanitizers and office cleanliness
  • Offer the ability for sick employees to work from home
  • Allow sick employees to stay at home and use their sick time if they are ill or contagious
  • Support employees' well-being by providing wellness resources/education and work-life balance

Q: What should we do when employees need to care for sick children?

A: Missing work to care for sick children is a challenge facing many working adults, who often feel they don't have enough paid sick time or flexible work arrangements to cover the days they need to take care of them.

There are a number of options you can offer in these circumstances. First, you can allow them to work at home, if possible, to care for their child. Second, you can provide a back-up/sick child care option or resource for employees to use. Third, you can allow them to use paid time off, make up work hours, work a flexible schedule, or provide family leave. Finally, if the situation warrants a serious health condition, providing FMLA leave may be advisable.

Q: What should we do about excessive absenteeism?

A: As a business, you need to institute and enforce acceptable boundaries for absenteeism in order to run your business smoothly via internal policies and procedures, such as an attendance policy.

But excessive absenteeism due to illness may actually be due to a legitimate medical condition which is covered by federal and state laws. In these cases, employers are obligated to comply with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and must pursue the appropriate course of action.

For other more common illnesses and issues that are acute in nature, if an employee is not complying with your policy or if you have a legitimate reason to believe that abuse is taking place, you may pursue whatever disciplinary action is necessary, so long as it's consistent with past precedents and documented policy.

Q: How should we handle issues of work coverage when an employee is sick?

A: Make sure your organization has the appropriate back-up coverage for when an employee is out of the office ill. Succession and workforce planning of this nature is essential to the ongoing productivity in your organization.

Q: How should we manage a longer-term illness?

A: Unfortunately, sometimes illnesses that affect the workplace are not just common flus and colds. Prolonged illness brings many unanticipated challenges to the workplace: arranging for medical leave (short term disability, FMLA, personal leave, etc.) preparing for return to work, dealing with short or long-term accommodations, and handling staffing or work coverage issues.

These situations can often be stressful and difficult for the employer and employee alike, so it's important to approach them with as much patience and support as possible. Usually, when employers make collaborative arrangements with employees to help them in these situations, to the extent that it business operations are not significantly affected, they tend to be effective.

Employee illness is one of the most common issues employers face in the workplace, and in our experience, one of the most difficult ones to manage. Approaching this flu season and employee illness in general in a supportive but tactical manner can help you better manage your employees, their needs, and those of your business.

Please note that by providing you with research information that may be contained in this article, ERC is not providing a qualified legal opinion. As such, research information that ERC provides to its members should not be relied upon or considered a substitute for legal advice. The information that we provide is for general employer use and not necessarily for individual application.

View ERC's Absence Management Practices Survey Results

This report summarizes the results of ERC’s survey of organizations in Northeast Ohio on practices related to attendance and unscheduled absence.

View the Results