Reviewing Sick Leave Policies During Coronavirus Pandemic

Most SMBs probably don’t include information about communicable disease when they wrote their leave policy

sick-leave-policies-workest

Further reading: A List of States and Cities with Paid Sick Leave Laws

Editor’s note: This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to provide legal, regulatory, accounting, or tax advice. This article was last updated March 2020. 

As the coronavirus continues to spread, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) around the country are rethinking their sick leave policies.

In many communities, schools have closed in an effort to flatten the curve. These initiatives hope to slow the spread of the virus so as to not overwhelm hospitals and health care facilities.

Employees are being asked to remote work and stay at home. For many workers, the option to do so is easy. For others, and for some SMBs, the choice is not as clear cut.

Americans are accustomed to working while sick

Even in the best of times, a majority of workers show up to work sick. A recent study by Robert Half revealed 57% of employees sometimes go to work sick, and 33% always go to work sick.

But these numbers shift when occupation and pay are factored into the equation. Access to sick pay plays a big factor.

It’s estimated that only about one-third of workers at the lowest 10% of the wage scale have access to paid sick days. These workers may be the most at-risk for financial problems by missing a day of work (or longer).

Review your sick leave policy 

A review of your sick leave policy is required in response to coronavirus, and will likely serve your organization in the future.

Consider what options you provide to employees, what impact those options have, and how you can adjust in the wake of the pandemic. It starts with careful consideration and ends with communication. The time to review your policy is now, and update it if necessary.

Stay at home

The first step for all businesses is to strongly encourage employees who are ill (even only mildly) to stay home. This may cause an initial strain on the business, but avoiding the potential for widespread infection is worth it.

It begins with affirmative messaging: let staff members know that, in this time of crisis, calling in sick will not only not count against them, it’s the responsible thing to do.

Affirmative communication is needed. A recent Zenefits survey found 42% of workers admit they’re worried about job security since the spread of the virus. The good news from that survey, 80% said they would stay home if they exhibited coronavirus symptoms. Assuring staffers their jobs are secure if they make the responsible choice to avoid others while ill is critical.

The financial implications for employees and SMBs

Some employees have to make the difficult choice to come to work sick because of financial need.

For these employees, you’ll want to look at options you currently have and potentially develop more:

  • Can you allow them to make up time later in the month to stave off a crisis?
  • Can you offer an advance on wages until this pandemic is under control?

The Small Business Administration is offering low interest loans for businesses for just such a contingency. They can help SMBs fund payroll, which could allow you to pay workers to stay home now.

Many states and cities have enacted paid sick leave legislation and funding that can help employees in the short-term, but not all.

California just waived it’s waiting period for collecting unemployment benefits, and many states may follow suit during this pandemic.

Federal assistance may be forthcoming, as well. But in the immediate future, most employees will rely on their company’s policy with regard to sick pay to make it over the hump.

Caregiver time 

Many workers are primary caregivers for others, but most organizations don’t have a sick leave policy that responds to their needs. While long-term care for family members is required under the FMLA and many state and local laws, short-term care issues are largely unaddressed. This can be problematic as staffers balance the need to work against the needs of their family members.

For the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, staff members who care for them may need help. Your sick leave policy can address this need to include more accommodations or more sick leave options.

Front-facing employees are at greater risk of carrying infection home to vulnerable populations, consider putting these staffers in roles with less direct contact with the public. If that’s not an option, short-term sick leave may be the right choice. Remind employees that each case should be determined individually, based on their situation and need.

For these workers, as well as others, steps can be taken to minimize spread within the organization.

Just go home 

For workers who do show up visibly ill, it’s important to require them to go home. Again, financial considerations are important, but pale in comparison to a possible outbreak in your company or community.

The CDC recommends employees who exhibit symptoms should leave the workplace.

The EEOC provided guidance following the H1N1 pandemic in 2009/2010. Requiring workers with symptoms to go leave and/or seek medical attention does not infringe on their rights — it’s acceptable and responsible to send them home.

When should employees return to work? 

Your sick leave policy on return to work should already be in place, but in case it isn’t, an update is required. Depending on the type of illness, the CDC recommends staying home for a minimum of 24 hours and up to 5 days after you’re symptom-free.

For workers with a fever (over 100°), the 24-hour no fever/no medications rule is recommended. For non-fever inducing illness, like flu, 3 to 5 days is the minimal recommendation.

A rule of thumb: if you’re not well, you’re not welcome.

Other sick leave policies you should have in place

While pandemics are thankfully rare, it is worth developing a communicable disease policy for some SMBs. Outbreaks of once-considered medieval diseases, like typhoid, have surged in some communities. Having a plan in place can prepare for such an outbreak and have protocols that minimize risk to employees and customers.

Some policy recommendations include:

  • Replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual contacts
  • Working from home
  • Minimizing travel to areas of concern
  • Reducing the total amount of employees in your facility at a given time
  • Maintaining a safe distance from one another

If your business doesn’t already have a crisis committee, put one together that looks at what you may need in the event of an outbreak or other hazard. Examine how you can successfully implement prevention and response protocols. The CDC and OSHA can provide guidance. You’ll want to include detailed plans to notify staff members at home and at work on what’s going on, what’s being implemented and what they should do.

Make it a team effort 

The best policies are generally developed with employee input. Put together a team of workers who represent every cohort in your group – from part-timers to the C-suite. Working in cooperation, they can consider the needs of every team and create a sick leave and/or crisis policy that addresses the concerns and necessities of everyone in your organization.

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