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Business_news A labor attorney explains the work rules around getting sick in the office, whether you’re facing a small cold or the coronavirus

Business_news

David Barron

2020-01-31T14: 15: 00Z

It’s important to have a game plan.

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  • David Barron is a labor and employment attorney with law firm Cozen O’Connor.
  • When it comes to illness in the workplace, there are five important questions that both employees and employers should be asking.
  • Generally, employers can ask sick employees to leave work — and they generally don’t have to be paid if they leave work early.
  • Employers can, under some conditions, make employees use PTO for an illness-related absence — and employees can refuse to work if there’s a good faith fear of exposure to illness.
  • Visit business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

With the outbreak ofcoronavirusdominating headlines, it is a great time to dust off the company policy on dealing with flu season and infectious diseases in the workplace. Contagious diseases are particularly troublesome subjects for companies, as there’s a wide variety of 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.

David Barron.

Courtesy of David Barron


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.

Business_news 1. Can an employer require a sick employee to leave work?

Generally, an employer can make a sick employee leave.

Zetar Infinity/Shutterstock


Generally, the answer is yes, as long as such a policy is 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.

Business_news 2. If the employer requires an employee to leave work early, must the employee be paid?

If an employee is exempt and performs any work that day, they must be paid.

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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.

Business_news 3. Can the employer force the employee to use PTO for a compelled absence?

It depends on local laws and bargaining agreements.

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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.

Business_news 4. Can an employer compel an employee to get a flu shot?

Many encourage them.

Karoly Arvai/Reuters


Many employers encourage or facilitate employee flu shots, and some states have laws compelling vaccination of health care workers. Compelled vaccinations outside the healthcare 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. 

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Business_news 5. What if an employee refuses to come to work or travel to an infected workplace?

Employees may be protected if they fear coming in.

izusek/Getty


TheOSHA Actmay 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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