Flu Season in the Workplace

The 2018 flu season is one of the worst the U.S. has ever seen and unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be easing up any time soon. Federal Health officials have reported that this year’s flu season is the most widespread on record and has caused the most hospitalizations in almost a decade. With so many people sick, the prevention of the spread of germs has become more important than ever. Dealing with illnesses in the workplace, especially during this flu season, can offer even more challenging issues for employers.

Newsday recently reported that four in ten American workers said they have come to work sick. When sick employees come to work, it can have a significant impact on the workplace as far as productivity and the risk of spreading the illness to other employees. Employers should encourage employees to stay home if they are sick. In the case of a fever, the CDC recommends 24 hours without symptoms before returning to work. Employers should reinforce this by developing policies that clarify when an employee should stay home and that confirm the employer has the right and discretion to send a sick employee home or ask them not to report to work.

As long as the policies are clear and consistent, an employer can require an employee to go home where the employee is showing signs of a contagious illness. However, employers must ensure they are acting in a non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory manner and be consistent in treatment of all employees before doing so. In addition, employers need to be cognizant of whether the illness is more serious and protected under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Although it is unlikely that the flu would qualify as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA, some complications associated with the flu could potentially become serious.

It is critical that employees know that they are expected to utilize their sick leave when necessary and to go home if they become sick at work. Generally, hourly nonexempt employees need only be paid for hours actually worked. Therefore, many employees will be reticent to take off or go home if they are ill because they won’t be paid. Employers may not deduct an exempt employee’s salary for absences directed by the employer but the employer can require the employee to use paid time off for the absence. Having a clear policy in place which communicates expectations of employees when they are sick is imperative.

Employers may want to consider implementing telecommuting programs or other flexible programs to further encourage employees to stay home when sick. Having procedures in place allowing employees to work from home would enable nonexempt employees to still get paid and exempt employees to save their paid time off. More importantly, it can help to reduce the spread of germs and illness in the workplace.

It’s important that employers provide a safe and healthy workplace for employees. Employers can also help prevent illness by encouraging frequent hand washing, providing hand sanitizer and other resources to sanitize common surfaces and workspaces frequently.