What to Do When Flu Season Hits Your Business

Employee with FluFall is officially here, and with it will soon come the cold and flu season!  These days, most businesses are already running leaner.  With fewer employees on hand to do the work, keeping our employees healthy and on the job is a priority.

What measures will you take in your business to help your employees stay healthy during flu season?

Can you mandate that your employees get flu shots?

Not necessarily.

You may offer to pay for the shots, or offer information about the shots to your employees.  However, unless your business is considered a first responder, you might be crossing the line if you require your employees to take a flu shot.

Issues that can arise with mandated flu shots include:

  • Liability under workers’ compensation for adverse reactions
  • Accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs that forbid immunizations
  • Invasion of privacy claims
  • Problems with maintaining employees’ health information in a confidential manner

You can, however, require your employees to use forms of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, face masks and gowns, if it seems wise in your work environment.

Can you ask employees if they have health conditions that make them vulnerable to flu complications, in order to take steps to protect them?

No you can’t, as this is prohibited by the ADA.

Therefore, you need to apply good precautions to protect everyone in your workplace.  However, if someone chooses to self-disclose a specific medical condition or disability and request accommodations to prevent complications, you would provide those in accordance with the ADA.

Can you send home an employee who appears to exhibit symptoms of flu?

Yes, you can.

Do you have to pay them? 

You would pay them in accordance with your company sick leave or paid time off policies, and in accordance with any applicable laws, such as FMLA.  Even if flu reaches a pandemic level, there are no other special pay or leave laws which apply.

Always remember that employees have a right to have their medical information maintained in a confidential manner!

If an employee contracts the flu from someone in the workplace, could they file a workers compensation claim?

Yes, in some very limited circumstances.

L&I looks at several factors to determine if it would be covered as an on-the-job illness:

  • The employee would have had to be exposed to the flu on the job
  • The employee would have to be in a job that required them to be exposed to the virus, such as a first responder or health care worker
  • A doctor would need to certify that it was probable that the worker contracted the illness on the job

What can you do about sick employees who come to work?

Many times, employers are concerned with the issue of absenteeism, but when flu season comes calling, it’s presenteeism that can become a problem instead.  We all want dedicated employees, but not so dedicated that they come to work ill with the flu and expose their coworkers!

Some businesses have a requirement that ill employees obtain a release from their doctor before they can return to work, in order to protect others.  If you choose to do this, recognize that it won’t always be possible for an employee to get into the doctor if there is a severe flu outbreak.  You might consider adding a provision in this policy which would allow an employee to return after a specific period of time in which they’ve been symptom free.

Consider implementing a social distancing policy.

Some companies have implemented social distancing policies to control contact between employees and others during the flu season.

For instance, during a flu outbreak, a company might close its lunch room, cancel company social events and hold meetings via electronic methods in order to limit the amount of physical contact between groups of employees.  Temporary changes in guest policies can also be made, limiting exposure to employees’ family members, friends, and any unnecessary outside guests in the office.

Employees that can work from home may be encouraged to do so when possible.  Another option is to implement alternative work schedules, change work hours or shift job duties in order to reduce employee interaction.

Sick managers need to be good role models.

Many of us in management feel that we, ourselves, are indispensable to the running of our companies.  When we’re sick, we come to work.  This sets a standard for our employees that many of them emulate.

During a potential flu outbreak, it’s an opportunity for us to become different role models, and send the message that it’s not only okay to stay home when ill, but that it’s the company’s preference that we do so.

Review your company’s sick leave policies.

As managers, we should also review our sick leave policies.  Some companies have a three strikes you’re out policy, or a no tolerance policy during someone’s probationary period, which forces ill employees to come to work, exposing others. During a flu outbreak these policies have the potential of creating a manpower shortage in our workplace.  It’s better to make some thoughtful tweaks to these policies than it is to suffer a painful blow to productivity!

As the saying goes, “In this world, you’ve just got to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take whatever God sends.”  That quote should probably grace every business person’s desk.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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