What HR can do when Peggy Sue gets the flu

By: Judy Kneiszel

Publication: Employee Relations Management Today

Date Posted: 02/27/2020

Contagious illness affecting the workplace

With coronavirus and seasonal flu outbreaks making headlines, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that a contagious illness could affect your workplace.

To be prepared for employee absences this flu season, take time to review company policies regarding sick employees. 

It’s important to note that supervisors’ attitudes can impact the spread of illness in a workplace. For example, some supervisors encourage sick employees to stay home to prevent the spread of germs to other workers. While disruptive to the workflow, it may help limit the number of those who get sick.

On the other hand, some supervisors send subtle messages that employees who show up to work no matter how bad they are feeling are “good” employees. While keeping staffing levels up at first, this may cause the illness to spread and eventually take a greater number of workers out of commission.

Communicate with your supervisors to make sure consistent information is being shared with employees regarding company policies and procedures for calling out sick.

Some employees, likely those who are salaried (exempt), may have the luxury of taking a sick day. Hourly (nonexempt) workers, on the other hand, may suffer financial hardship from taking time off. You should know your legal obligations when it comes to sick days and pay. 

While an outbreak of sickness isn’t exactly something HR can plan for, here things to know before an employee – let’s call her Peggy Sue – comes down with the flu:

  • Can Peggy Sue’s supervisor require her to leave work if she comes in sick?  Generally, yes, as long as such a policy is consistently applied to all employees. Requiring a non-exempt employee to leave work, however, will likely impact the employee’s pay (unless paid time off is available), and may cause both morale and operational issues that could need to be addressed.
     
  • If Peggy Sue's supervisor requires her to leave work early, must she be paid?  If Peggy Sue is non-exempt (hourly), she does not need to be paid for any hours she did not work (unless a state has paid sick leave laws on the books). If Peggy Sue is exempt (salaried) she must be paid if she performed any work that day. Generally, an employer may not make a partial day deduction for exempt employees. 
     
  • Can Peggy Sue be required to use paid time off (PTO) for the absence? In the absence of a state/local law or collective bargaining agreement to the contrary, Peggy Sue’s employer may require her to use accrued PTO if she is absent because of sickness. 
     
  • Can Peggy Sue’s employer require her (and her coworkers) to get a flu shot? Many employers encourage or facilitate employee flu shots by holding on-site clinics. In addition, some states have laws requiring the vaccination of health care workers. Outside the health care industry mandating flu shots for employees is rare, and Peggy Sue’s employer should consider the possibility that she may refuse the vaccine for religious, personal, or medical reasons. 

About the author
Judy Kneiszel - Human Resources Editor

Judy is an Associate Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team and she specializes in issues such as recruiting and hiring, onboarding and training, employee communication and discipline, managing problems, team building, inclusion, employee retention, and labor relations

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