The coronavirus has already had a large (some would say devastating) effect on the global economy. How will it affect the day-to-day operations of an employer? Obviously, businesses want their employees to be safe and healthy, but news stories about the spread of an infectious disease can affect a workforce in many different ways. Employers should come up with a consistent and effective plan for a possible epidemic.

The Hero Employee and “Presenteeism”

Most employers are familiar with workers who will show up on the job even if they appear to be at death’s door. This problem is known in the literature as “presenteeism.” While the dedication to the job may be admirable (although some may have to show up because of financial reasons more than loyalty), infectious onsite workers may cause more trouble than they are worth. If other employees get sick and miss work, that is a problem. Not only do you have more employees out, they may all start pointing fingers at each other as the cause. You may need to relax some disciplinary policies on attendance during times of a major sickness outbreak. If an employee is legitimately sick, you may want to encourage sharing of sick leave or other methods to allow that person to stay home and not infect the rest of your workforce. The key, as it is with every employment practice, is to have open communication with your employees and establish a consistent policy — even if it is temporary and a slight deviation from your usual procedures.

FMLA

A serious sickness outbreak, like we may see with the coronavirus, may trigger obligations under the FMLA. However, just because an employee calls in claiming that they caught the latest virus doesn’t mean they automatically have their job protected under federal law. The condition must still be considered a “serious health condition.” In past cases, the flu can only classify as an FMLA-worthy condition if it causes three full days of incapacity and causes you to receive continued treatment. The employee still must request FMLA leave from the employer. Once the employee requests leave, you should still check to be sure he or she is eligible (i.e., worked for you at least 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months, and works at a site with enough employees). Also, do not forget that employees may seek FMLA leave to take care of a sick family member.

The Chicken Little Employee or Worse

With the amount of press coverage and the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, employers may experience workers that either are too afraid to come to work (even though they aren’t sick) or use this as an opportunity to just take some time off. Fear of sickness is not a get-out-of-work-free card. If a healthy employee does not have paid leave or cannot get approval for missing work, normal disciplinary measures for attendance should apply. Employers need to be vigilant in enforcing the proof required for an employee to be entitled to sick leave.

Staffing in a Crisis

If your workplace unfortunately is struck with a rash of sick employees, you will need to rely on your healthy employees so review your policies about calling people in for extra shifts. If you have employees that fill in for sick colleagues, be sure to keep up with any overtime obligations. Remind employees to take care of themselves and WASH THEIR HANDS. You may want to invest in extra hand sanitizer. Also, remember to thank those employees who are showing up. You are paying them, but they will get tired of the extra work and may need a little recognition (something like donuts or pizza for lunch).

Act Now

You should put together a plan NOW for how to deal with a sudden drop in available workforce. Whether that means extra shifts, contract workers, or even shutting down certain operations, it is better to have a plan in place early rather than having to react after a crisis occurs.