Severe Flu Season Creates HR Challenges

With the outbreak of the corona virus dominating headlines, it is a great time to dust off the company policy on dealing with flu season and infectious diseases, generally, in the workplace.  Contagious diseases are particularly troublesome subjects for companies because of the varied circumstances and cultures on the wisdom of working through a sickness.  Some managers reward employees who “tough it out” and show up under the weather, while other company cultures encourage sick employees to work from home or stay away altogether.  Similarly, some employees may have the luxury of taking a sick day, while others may not be able to suffer a loss of income.   No matter where a company comes down on these important questions, there are lots of significant related legal issues that should be considered in formulating an HR strategy.

  1. Can an employer require a sick employee to leave work?  Generally, the answer is “Yes”, as long as such a policy applied consistently and without discrimination.   Of course, forcing an employee to leave work may impact their pay, especially if non-exempt, and  could raise morale and operational issues that should be addressed.
  2. If the employer requires an employee to leave work early, must the employee be paid?  If non-exempt, the general answer is no.   For exempt employees, the employee must be paid if the employee performs any work that day, and the employer cannot make a partial day deduction. 
  3. Can the employer force the employee to use PTO for a compelled absence?   In the absence of a state/local law or collective bargaining agreement to the contrary, yes an employer may require an employee to use any accrued paid leave if the employee is absent because of sickness. 
  4. Can an employer compel an employee to get a flu shot?   Many employers encourage or facilitate  employee flu shots, and some states have laws compelling vaccination of health care workers.  Compelled vaccinations outside the health care industry are rare and any employer considering such a policy should take into account concerns that may be raised by employees, such as religious or medical reasons for refusing the vaccine. 
  5. What if an employee refuses to come to work or travel to an infected workplace?  The OSHA Act may protect an employee who refuses to work based on a good faith fear of exposure to a contagious disease.  Employees with compromised immune systems or other medical issues may also be entitled to a reasonable accommodation in the form of an alternate work arrangement in the event of an outbreak.  Accordingly, any discipline of an employee refusing to work should be approached carefully and with the assistance of legal counsel.

With all of these answers, it is important to note that individual facts may differ, and requirements under local or state laws and collective bargaining agreements might impact the ultimate analysis.  For these reasons, it is helpful to have a game plan in place before an outbreak occurs, so that the company can carefully consider these nuanced issues.

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About HR Headaches
HR Headaches is a blog for Human Resources professionals, business owners, and in-house counsel to get the latest news, analysis and tips in the area of labor and employment law. Every day there are new court decisions, agency interpretations, and regulations which affect the workplace, making it difficult, if not impossible, for many employers to keep current. HR Headaches is dedicated to providing information in a practical, no-nonsense manner to help employers avoid legal disputes and keep policies up to date.
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