Employers can push for more workers to return to the office. But it’s proving to be an uphill battle, especially as cold and flu season begins..
A triple whammy of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and new variants of Covid is already setting in and 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 influenza currently the main culprit.
And employers are already worried about the increase in absences. A recent survey by human resources consultancy Mercer found that nearly half of large employers surveyed said Covid-related absences were a concern on their own. Among them, almost a third said their operations are or could be affected by absences due to acute illness, isolation and quarantine.
Despite concerns about calls from staff, most employers no longer require anyone to wear a mask at work. Fifteen percent of large employers have dropped their Covid vaccination requirements, according to Mercer. And of those that have kept them, most do not require employees to receive the final booster shot.
To minimize the risk of virus transmission at work and reduce employee absences, here are six steps employers can take.
Although Covid and flu vaccines do not eliminate a person’s risk of infection, they have been shown to reduce the severity of illness.
If employers aren’t mandating vaccines and booster shots, they should be encouraging their staff to get them, said Devjani Mishra, labor attorney at Littler Mendelson. And if possible, make it easier for them – for example, by providing flu shots and Covid boosters on the spot or a list of nearby places that provide them.
Before the pandemic, many employees would show up to work with a cold or the flu, just to prove their dedication.
Telling staff to stay home when they get sick is key to ensuring they don’t spread what they have.
If someone presents with a dry cough or other obvious sign that they are unwell, employers should encourage them to go home. If they choose to stay, they should be asked to sit apart from others and told to wear a mask. Both are lawful requests because they mitigate the measures taken by an employer to ensure a safe workplace, Mishra said.
“If you have an employee who coughs and sneezes and doesn’t go into a room alone, an employer always has the option of saying‘we are concerned that there may be a risk to your health or that of others,” she noted.
Whichever approach the employer chooses, this approach should apply to anyone who arrives with a contagious 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 days is a good way to make sure employees feel comfortable calling when sick.
Yet many employers do not offer paid sick leave and may only offer a few paid personal days. “It does not give people the option of staying at home [when they’re sick]“, said Mishra.
When a worker gets sick, bosses should ask why. The employee may not want to burn off the few paid personal or vacation days they get or lose a pay day.
Further, “employers really need to check and recheck what [paid leave] is available under state and local laws,” Mishra said, noting that many local governments have adopted new types of paid leave requirements in recent years. “Not all employers are above that.”
Even if an employer requires everyone to be on site a certain number of days a week, letting workers who get sick working from home helps prevent the spread of illness. “Consider being flexible,” Mishra suggested.
The good news: Mercer claims that many of its clients have obtained the memo. “Employers are more flexible than they were pre-Covid about where and when you work,” said Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner at Mercer.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that absences from work due to child care issues hit a record high in October. This may in part be due to respiratory viruses which have hit hard this year.
Even if working parents and their children do not fall ill themselves, when if there is an outbreak of Covid or RSV cases at their daycare or elementary school, the parent may need to stay home to care for the children.
Employers can minimize employee absences if they can subsidize surge child care options for working parents, Mishra noted.
The first public health message regarding Covid was “wear a mask to protect others”.
If an employer does not require employees to wear masks this winter, they should have them on hand 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, Mercer’s health and benefits practice partner. “Wearing a mask protects you.”