Flu Prompts Companies to Examine Sick Leave

By Steve Taylor Aug 26, 2009

When the federal government recommended on Aug. 19, 2009, that businesses plan for a swine flu pandemic by making attendance and sick leave policies more flexible, many organizations across the country were already doing just that, and many more were thinking about it.

“Some of them are being more liberal in terms of saying we want to keep employees healthy, so we’ll have some type of pool system … for combining sick, vacation and personal days,” said Russell Robbins, principal and senior clinical consultant at Mercer, an HR consulting firm.

“There has been a change from typical business as usual,” said Tim Newman of Watson Wyatt, “in that many companies are advising employees, ‘If you’re sick you should stay home,’ as opposed to ‘If you’re sick, tough it out.’”

Health care employers face additional challenges.

“If we don’t have a care staff, we can’t care for sick patients,” noted Bill Powanda, vice president of Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn. Even with normal, seasonal flu, he said, “What we see is an influx in patients at the same time as an increase in absenteeism.”

The hospital’s HR director, Stephen Mordecai said “a dialog has begun” about alterations in employee policies, beginning with the question, “If the swine flu hits, how are we going to deal with it from an absentee perspective?”

Stormy Weather

This may happen to a greater degree when the weather turns wintry in the northern hemisphere. Newman, a senior consultant to Watson Wyatt’s health and productivity team, said, “We thought [swine flu] was going to go away in the summer because influenza viruses don’t live as well [then], but it has persisted in the northern climates, even in the summertime.”

Warning that the number of flu cases will swell in coming months, three Obama administration officials urged corporate managers to prepare. Among the suggestions:

  • Tell employees showing flu symptoms to stay home until 24 hours after their fevers pass.
  • Develop plans for operating with reduced staffing.
  • Allow more work from home.
  • Consider placing workstations farther apart.
  • Liberalize sick, personal and family leave, at least temporarily.

“Companies are relaxing some of those [attendance] policies to allow for a health emergency,” Newman reported, “so sick days won’t impact bonus or performance ratings.”

“What are we going to do for the person who has no vacation or holiday time left and has a sick child?” asked Mordecai. “If we do anything, that’s the area we’ll have to look at.”

Robbins says even employees whose children are not sick could be forced to take time off if their local school district closes. “So some employers are making contingency plans for having child care on premises.”

Contingency Planning Worldwide

A Mercer survey of 400 mid-size and large organizations in the U.S. and 16 other industrialized countries, conducted in spring 2009, found that about 41 percent of the companies reported having no HR plan for health-related emergencies. However, substantial percentages said they were considering steps such as canceling meetings and conferences, cutting business travel, screening staff and visitors returning from travel, and even setting up voluntary or enforced quarantines for at-risk employees.

Robbins said he sees a growing overseas awareness of the need for flu planning. “In Asia, absolutely. In the U.K., we’re beginning to see more cases as well. Definitely, companies [in other countries] are looking at this very closely.”

In the United Kingdom, the government is considering a change in the requirement for some returning government workers to bring a note from their doctors, raising the threshold from seven days’ absence to 14. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke urged American employers to waive requirements for doctor’s notes, saying, “It has the potential to overload a health care system that is [already] likely to be stressed.”

Because swine flu has not yet proved as virulent or deadly as predicted, Newman said, “[It] has been a good practice run, an opportunity to address the impact of a pandemic on a company.” He said many companies are adapting business continuity plans devised for another flu scare. “They prepared for avian flu last year, and when swine flu came it pushed them to deal with reality of how difficult it is to handle [such] an emergency.”

“It’s important keeping employees healthy but also important to keep the business running,” said Robbins. “What companies are trying to say is, ‘If you’re sick, stay home, but if you are home, come back as quickly as possible.”

However, as reported on SHRM Online in May 2009, 71 percent of nearly 12,000 U.S. workers who took a Monster.com poll said they typically go to work when they’re ill. One-third of them said they fear losing their job if they stay home. Many others said their workload is too heavy.

In a swine flu pandemic, Robbins said one solution might be “empowering managers to [recognize] symptoms of flu” and to send workers home. However, this approach is complicated by the fact that by the time symptoms show, the disease may already have been passed to someone else.

Legal Risk

Might companies be sued by employees who catch the flu at work and allege that the company’s attendance bonus program encourages sick people to come to work? “Somebody’s got to be really litigious to do that,” said Mordecai, “but some people are really litigious.”

“None of the companies [I advise] have been focusing on the legal risk of causing the illness of somebody else,” Newman said. “In general, companies are not able to mitigate illness at will.” He added, however, “I’m sure it’ll be challenged. Everything gets challenged.”

Cheryl Behymer, who has an employment law practice at Fisher & Phillips in Columbia, S.C., said an attendance bonus program would have to be pretty badly written to expose a company to liability for causing an employee’s illness. “Having a sick leave policy is recognition that employees who are ill pose a risk to co-workers,” she counseled. “As long as the employer has no reason to know a person [who comes to work] is ill, there probably isn’t liability.”

Steve Taylor is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Related Articles

Limit Legal Concerns Arising from Swine Flu Outbreak with Global Pandemic Plans, SHRM Online Safety and Security Discipline, Aug. 13, 2009

Ready or Not, Here It Comes, SHRM Online Safety and Security Discipline, Aug. 3, 2009


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