Flu, RSV, Covid: 6 ways employers can deal with a potential wave of absences

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN BusinessUpdated: Wed, 16 Nov 2022 16:24:26 GMTEmployers may be pushing for more workers to return to the office. But that's proving to be an uphill battle, especially as the

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN Business

Updated: Wed, 16 Nov 2022 16:24:26 GMT

Employers may be pushing for more workers to return to the office. But that's proving to be an uphill battle, especially as the cold and flu season gets underway.

A triple whammy of the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and new Covid variants is already taking hold and forcing some workers to call out sick.

The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that respiratory illness activity is high or very high in 22 US states, with the flu being the biggest culprit at the moment.

And employers are already concerned about mounting absences. A recent survey by human resources consulting firm Mercer found that nearly half of large employers surveyed said Covid-related absences alone are a concern. Among them, nearly a third said their operations are or could be affected by the absences due to acute illness, isolation and quarantine.

Despite concerns about staff calling out, most employers no longer require anyone to wear a mask at work. Fifteen percent of large employers dropped their Covid vaccination requirements, according to Mercer. And among those that have kept them, most don't mandate that employees get the latest booster shot.

In order to minimize the risk of transmitting viruses at work and reduce employee absences, here are six steps employers can take.

1. Strongly encourage shots

While Covid and flu shots won't eliminate a person's chance of getting infected, they have been shown to reduce the severity of the illness.

If employers aren't mandating vaccines and boosters, they should encourage their staff to get them, said Devjani Mishra, employment attorney with Littler Mendelson. And if possible, make it easier for them to do so -- for instance, by providing flu shots and Covid boosters on site or a list of places nearby that provide them.

2. Advise employees to stay home if they're sick

Before the pandemic, plenty of employees showed up to work with a cold or 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've got.

If someone does come in with a hacking cough or other obvious sign they're not well, employers should encourage them to go home. If they choose to stay, they should be asked to sit apart from others and tell them to wear a mask. Both are legal requests because they are mitigating measures an employer is taking to ensure a safe workplace, Mishra said.

"If you have an employee coughing and sneezing and not going to a room by themselves, an employer always has the ability to say, 'we're concerned there may be a health risk to yourself or to others,'" she noted.

Whatever approach an employer chooses, that approach should apply to everyone who comes in 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.]

3. Be honest about what company policies incentivize

Offering paid sick leave is a good way to ensure employees feel comfortable calling in sick.

Yet a lot of employers don't provide paid sick leave and they may just offer a few paid personal days. "That doesn't give people flexibility to stay home [when they're sick]," Mishra said.

When a worker does come in sick, bosses should ask why. It may be that the employee doesn't want to burn the few paid personal or vacation days they get or lose out on a day of pay.

Also "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 kinds of paid time off requirements in recent years. "Not every employer is on top of that."

4. Stay flexible

Even if an employer requires everyone to be on site for a set number of days every week, letting workers who get sick work from home helps prevent illnesses from spreading. "Consider being flexible," Mishra suggested.

The good news: Mercer says many of its clients have gotten the memo. "Employers are more flexible than they were pre-Covid about where and when you work," said Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at Mercer.

5. Provide back-up childcare

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that absences from work due to child care problems hit a record high in October. That may partly be due to respiratory viruses hitting hard this year.

Even if working parents and their children aren't getting sick themselves, when there's an outbreak of Covid or RSV cases at their day care or elementary school, the parent may need to stay home to take care of the kids.

Employers may minimize employee absences if they can subsidize back-up day care options for working parents, Mishra noted.

6. Encourage mask wearing

The initial public health message with respect to Covid was "wear a mask to protect others."

If an employer is not mandating that employees 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, a partner in Mercer's health and benefits practice. "Wearing a mask is protective for you."