Around the nation, COVID-19 cases are surging, with hospitalizations having increased for nine straight weeks. Couple that with a spike in flu cases, and it’s a rough time for workplaces dealing with employee illnesses and absences.
“We’re not in a great place, with a lot of people getting sick,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader with WTW in Boston. “There are certainly things employers should be doing and thinking about right now.”
The wave is no outlier: It’s the latest in a series of surges that have occurred since COVID-19 first emerged in late 2019. But this surge, mostly due to the new JN.1 variant, is significant as experts say it’s the second-highest COVID-19 peak after the Omicron wave in winter 2021.
It’s a reminder for employers that they would be well served to promote health mitigations and encourage employees not to come to work sick and to take advantage of their benefits offerings—in short, turn to their pandemic playbook.
“By now, most individuals and employers know the drill and will implement or reinstate pandemic-era policies as needed,” said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at Optavise, a Carmel, Ind.-based benefits administration firm.
Experts pointed to a number of policies and strategies employers might want to turn to during this coronavirus and flu surge.
Offering—and Promoting—Sick Leave
Although the COVID-19 and flu surge can cause higher rates of absences, having employees come into offices when they are sick will lead to much worse outcomes: getting more workers sick and creating a serious hit on employee productivity and absenteeism.
So even if it seems helpful in the short term to keep employees working, long-term issues will likely arise that will impact more staff and even customers or clients. Ensuring sick employees stay home and take advantage of paid sick leave can keep a staff outbreak at bay.
“It’s important that people have sick leave, and it’s important that we discourage people who are sick from coming to the workplace,” Levin-Scherz said. “Nobody should feel like they’re going to be harshly judged because they call in sick or they do their work virtually.”
Employers and HR leaders should ensure that managers are prepared for mass employee absences and sick-day requests. First, they should expect a significantly higher number of workers to be out sick. They should also be aware of state, federal or local laws that require paid sick leave for employees.
HR and benefits leaders should also know that employees may be reluctant to take paid time off (PTO) or sick leave at the beginning of the year, Buckey said, and they may require an extra nudge from organizations—and maybe even another solution, like offering extra COVID-19-related sick time.
“If employees accrue PTO, they may want to avoid ‘going negative’ by taking time off now—and may try to power through,” she said. “Every employer will have to decide how they’re going to respond to that, whether it’s encouraging work from home, providing a limited number of COVID days outside of PTO or sick days, or something else.”
While managers should encourage employees to stay home if they feel ill, “assuming that an employee with COVID-19 symptoms feels well enough to work and be productive, then remote work can be allowed if technologically feasible,” Jim Paul, SHRM-SCP, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., recently told SHRM Online. However, if an employee needs to rest and recuperate, an employer should offer time off instead, he said.
Mitigation: Masks, Limiting Travel, More
Health experts also point to tried-and-true mitigation efforts—like mask-wearing, good indoor ventilation, and reducing unnecessary gatherings or travel—that can help offices slow rampant COVID-19, flu or other infections among their employees.
Hospitals in at least five U.S. states have reinstated mask mandates in recent weeks in response to the surge, while other company leaders are promoting masks or seeing an increase in employees wearing masks in offices.
“Employers should offer the opportunity to work virtually for people who can during a time like this, and they should be sure that their workplaces are mask-friendly,” Levin-Scherz said. “Things like mask-wearing are especially important for employees who are immunocompromised or for employees who have family members who are immunocompromised. And others might wear them before a big event or before they leave on vacation so they don’t get sick and miss it.”
Organizations may also want to consider other measures taken by many companies at previous stages of the pandemic—like cutting down on large in-person meetings and events, capping the number of people in offices at once or rethinking employee travel that isn’t necessary, he said. That’s because if one employee gets sick, it often causes a domino effect for a workforce. Large indoor activities may also make some employees nervous about getting sick.
Levin-Scherz noted that although the country is beyond a time when employers would close down offices or stores and have everyone work from home—as they did in 2020 and 2021—employers should not be reluctant to turn to mitigation strategies during a coronavirus surge.
“People need to be thinking hard about business travel that is clearly discretionary during a peak like we’re in now,” Levin-Scherz said. “Employers should be thinking hard about whether they want to have an all-company meeting going on in a stuffy room at a time where every week, there are more people being hospitalized with COVID.”
Vaccination Encouragement, Other Communications
HR and benefit teams may also want to use the spike in COVID and flu cases to encourage vaccination, as well as available health and benefits offerings to which employees have access, Buckey said.
Levin-Scherz agreed, saying individuals who get vaccinated have better outcomes, and the vaccines also may reduce the prevalence of long COVID, which is a massive problem.
“It would be better if people got vaccinated a month ago or two months ago, but it’s not too late to get vaccinated,” he said. While most organizations that host onsite flu or COVID-19 shot clinics already did so last fall, employers can offer suggestions on where employees can go locally to roll up their sleeves, while also sending information about the benefits of getting vaccinated. Some organizations may get more workers to get a shot if they offer a wellness credit or other incentive.
In general, Buckey said, communication to employees about the latest surge—along with information on symptoms, company protocols and tips to keep themselves safe—is a good idea.
“I would certainly encourage employers to be proactive about communication with employees about COVID facts—things like telling them the new strain is likely to cause symptoms more quickly—three days rather than five to seven days after exposure,” Buckey said. “And with so many respiratory illnesses around, [employers should remind workers] it’s worth testing if you show any symptoms.”
She continued: “They should also send reminders about company policies and preferences, such as masking and working from home, as well as benefits that can help, such as telehealth options and coverage of tests and treatment.”