Employees Sick Again? 5 Tips to Manage Seasonal Illnesses

DeniseBlommelBy Denise M. Blommel

Despite the best weather in the nation, many Arizonans are suffering from allergies, colds and influenza. Human Resource professionals are fielding calls from supervisors about the many employees who are calling in sick and complaining about being short-handed.

On the other hand, even more employees are coming to work hacking and sneezing in order to work more hours to make ends meet. And the government will be mandating seven paid days of sick leave for employees of federal contractors beginning in 2017.

What’s an employer to do? Here are some tips:

  • Ascertain how workers fulfill the mission of the business, organization or governmental entity. Can the mission (the reason for the organization’s existence) be met by work being performed outside the workplace (for example, at home)? Can necessary work be done without interacting directly with the public (over the telephone rather than in person)? Is attendance an essential function of the job (to use language from the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA])?
  • Take a good look at your company’s sick leave policies. Does the organization have a written policy for taking time off work – paid or unpaid? Are there “unwritten” rules (or urban legends) about sick leave? Are employees encouraged to take time off work when they are ill so as not to infect their co-workers or customers? Or, are employees encouraged to come to work sick because of low wages or lack of paid time off? Are employees who abuse sick leave actually disciplined or permitted to skirt the rules? In other words, who and what behaviors are rewarded by your sick leave policies?
  • Be mindful of the ADA and the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Those “occurrence policies” breed litigation and complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor, which enforces the FMLA, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the ADA. Automatically disciplining or terminating an employee for attendance issues is fraught with peril. If the FMLA applies to your organization, so does the ADA, and both may protect the employee who takes off work for illness.
  • Consider options. For example, might it be cost-effective to have an employer-paid short-term disability policy for all employees so as to shift the cost of paid-time off for illness or injury to an insurance carrier? Is it better to combine vacation and sick leave into a PTO or paid-time off system? Is it advantageous to have sick leave available for employees even before their “introductory” period is served?
  • Be aware of unintended consequences of your employee policies. Do not simply adopt policies from the internet or other companies and expect positive results. Have your policies reviewed and tailored to your industry AND your mission.

Gentle reminder: This is general information; not legal advice.

Denise M. Blommel is an attorney in solo private practice in Scottsdale. She represents employers and employees in employment and labor matters. Denise is First Vice Chair of Girl Scouts – Arizona Cactus-Pine Council. She is a member of the State Bar of Arizona, State Bar of Nevada, American Bar Association, Scottsdale Bar Association and the Arizona Employment Lawyers Association. She also is a frequent presenter for government, business, educational and community groups.

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