Employers can push for more employees to return to the office. But that’s proving to be an uphill battle, especially as the cold and flu season kicks in.
A triple whammy of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and new Covid variants is already hitting, forcing some workers to call in sick.
The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that respiratory disease activity is high or very high in 22 US states, with the flu currently being the biggest culprit.
And employers are already worried about increasing absenteeism. A recent survey by human resources consultancy Mercer found that nearly half of large employers surveyed said that absenteeism related to Covid-19 alone is a concern. Among them, nearly a third said their activities are or could be affected by the absences due to acute illness, isolation and quarantine.
Despite concerns about staff calling, most employers no longer require anyone to wear a mask at work. According to Mercer, 15 percent of major employers dropped their Covid vaccination requirements. And among those who have kept them, most do not require employees to receive the latest booster shot.
To minimize the risk of virus transmission in the workplace and reduce employee absences, here are six steps employers can take.
While Covid and flu shots do not eliminate the chance of becoming infected, they have been shown to reduce the severity of the disease.
If employers don’t mandate vaccines and boosters, they should encourage their staff to get them, said Devjani Mishra, an employment attorney at Littler Mendelson. And if possible, make it easier for them to do that, for example by providing flu shots and Covid boosters on site or a list of nearby places they provide.
Before the pandemic, many employees came to work with a cold or the flu just to prove their dedication.
Telling staff to stay home if they get sick is key to making sure they don’t spread what they have.
If someone comes in with a coughing fit or some other obvious sign that they’re not okay, employers should encourage them to go home. If they choose to stay, they should be asked to sit separately from others and told to wear a mask. Both are legal requests because they are mitigation measures an employer takes to ensure a safe workplace, Mishra said.
“If you have an employee who coughs and sneezes and does not go to a room himself, an employer always has the option to say‘we are concerned that there may be a health risk to yourself or others,” she noted.
Whichever approach an employer chooses, that approach should apply to anyone who comes in with an infectious virus, Mishra said. “Treat everyone the same.”
[Note: Employers should also follow guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration when someone has Covid.]
Offering paid sick leave is a good way to make employees feel comfortable calling in sick.
Still, many employers don’t offer paid sick leave and may only offer a few paid personal days. “That gives people no flexibility to stay at home [when they’re sick]’ said Mishra.
When a worker gets sick, bosses have to ask why. The employee may not want to burn the few paid personal or vacation days they get or miss out on a day’s pay.
Also “employers really need to check and recheck what [paid leave] available under state and local laws,” Mishra said, noting that many local governments have introduced new types of paid time off in recent years. “Not every employer is on top of that.”
Even if an employer requires everyone to be present on location for a fixed number of days per week workers who get sick working from home helps prevent diseases from spreading. “Consider being flexible,” Mishra suggested.
The good news: Mercer says many of his customers have gotten the memo. “Employers are more flexible than before Covid about where and when you work,” said Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner at Mercer.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that absenteeism due to childcare issues hit an all-time high in October. That may be partly due to respiratory viruses hitting hard this year.
Even if working parents and their children do not get sick themselves, when there is an outbreak of Covid or RSV cases at their nursery or primary school, the parent may need to stay home to care for the children.
Employers can minimize employee absences if they can subsidize backup daycare options for working parents, Mishra noted.
The first public health message regarding Covid was “wear a mask to protect others”.
If an employer isn’t making masks mandatory for employees this winter, they should keep them handy and publicly support those who choose to wear them.
It’s also important to remind employees that wearing a mask has another benefit, said Mary Kay O’Neill, a partner in Mercer’s health and benefits practice. “Wearing a mask is protective for you.”