Ways to minimize the impact of this year’s flu at the office.
The flu season is the time of year when the sound of coughing or sneezing can send a definite chill through the office. In today’s fast paced work environment, the last thing you want to see is one of your employees sitting at their desk, tissue in one hand and cough drop in the other while trying to assist your customers.
It’s not only bad for the employee who is not feeling well but can also impact your business by exposing other employees and even customers to the same virus. So, what can an employer do?
FMLA and the Flu Season
One of the popular questions around this time of year is, can an employee who takes time off for the flu (or another virus) be eligible for FMLA leave? The answer is a decisive—maybe.
Okay, so its not a clear yes or no answer.
First the employer must be required to comply with federal FMLA protections. Next, the employee must have met the standard eligibility requirements. The employee must be on leave for more than three consecutive days (including weekends). Finally, the employer needs to determine if the time off falls under the ‘serious health condition’ category.
In order for an illness (such as our friendly flu bug) to qualify under this category one of the following conditions must be met:
- The employee (or family member) has had at least two treatments by a healthcare provider. The first treatment must take place within seven days of the first day of the incapacity. The second treatment must take place within thirty days. (Keep in mind, this doesn’t apply if the provider has no appointments available within the 30-day period.)
- The employee (or family member) has had at least one treatment by a healthcare provider that results in a regimen of continuing treatment. The treatment must take place within seven days of the first day of incapacity.
A regimen of continuing treatment:
- Includes: prescription medications, oxygen tanks, nebulizer treatments (requires a doctor)
- Does NOT include: over-the-counter medications, bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids (you can do this on your own)
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Example 1: Jamie woke up with a sore throat and is running a fever. He calls his doctor’s office and is told there is a virus going around and to just stay in bed and drink plenty of fluids. After being out for 4 days, he calls and asks if he can use FMLA leave. What is your answer?
In this case, the answer should be no because he doesn’t have a ‘serious health condition’. He didn’t see his doctor (phone calls don’t count as a visit) and the treatment does not require a doctor’s approval.
Example 2: Kristen is sent home from work because she was coughing excessively and stated she was running a fever. The next day, she feels much worse and goes to her doctor who determines she has developed bronchitis and prescribes antibiotics and an inhaler to help her with her breathing. Kristen calls you to inform you that she will be out for more than 3 days. What should the employer do?
The employer should send Kristen the required FMLA notices and inform her that the leave will be designated as FMLA.
Keep in mind during this year’s flu season – if your state has family medical leave provisions, an employee may qualify under the state’s FMLA policy.
Paid Sick Leave
If you have employees in one of the states (recently Michigan and New Jersey) or municipalities that require paid sick leave, you can remind employees of the benefit. If you don’t have a paid sick leave policy, it might be worth looking at providing paid time off. Paid time off encourages employees to stay home when sick. Which can save money in the long run by not exposing more employees or customers to the current virus or flu outbreak.
Remember, that many of the state paid sick leave laws do not require advance notice for the employee to be eligible for the leave. Many also limit the amount of documentation you can obtain. In many ways, the flu season is one of the reasons many of these laws were enacted. So be sure you are in compliance with them.
Flu season normally begins between October and November each year. You can encourage people to get flu shots before the season begins. Employers can provide a list of local medical professionals who provide free shots or discounted shots. Remind people who are covered under your health insurance plan that they may get the flu shot for free.
Beware! You cannot require employees to get a flu shot or retaliate against those who don’t get one. This would run afoul of EEOC and ADA regulations. Some employees would not want the flu shot due to an underlying medical condition or due to a religious belief.
The Clean Patrol
Remind employees to wash their hands frequently, use tissues and take other precautions to reduce the spread of illness in the office. Employers can help by making items available such as hand sanitizers, tissues, and even cleaning wipes to use on phones and other points of contact.
I visited a small office recently and noticed all employees were wearing masks—each one was decorated. Apparently, they had a contest for most creative face mask with the winner getting a gift card. The owner told me he didn’t want to have the person who was sick being the only person in the office who wore a mask, so they all decided to join in. It was a small office where having multiple people sick would adversely impact their business. This was a fun way to limit the exposure at the same time making it fun.
Finally, talk to your cleaning crew during the flu season and ask them to wipe down door knobs and other areas that people touch. We have done that in our office with great success.
An employer can allow those who are under the weather to work from home. However, keep in mind that you might be setting a precedent with this policy for others who might seek a similar accommodation under the ADA.
Lead by Example!
If the owner, manager or supervisor comes to work sick then employees will assume they must also do the same. Employees are naturally afraid of retaliation or being passed over for promotions for taking any sick time off. An employer can alleviate the fear by showing even the boss stays home when he or she is sick.
Can I force an employee to go home?
Typically, yes you can if an employee is showing symptoms consistent with the current virus or flu bug going around. However, stay clear of anything that could be seen as providing medical examinations or asking a disability-related question.
Who knew when mom kissed me on the forehead to check for fever, she was doing a medical exam?
When I have sent someone home from my office, I’ve always tried to assure the employee that it was out of concern for their well-being. I also make it clear there would be no retaliation of any kind—and over the years have shown that to be true. As with anything, good communication along with a dose of Mom’s chicken soup may be the best prescription against this year’s flu season!
Here’s a fun video on the subject:
Seven Ways to Help Prevent Flu Germs from Spreading
Source: MD Anderson Cancer Center
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