By Carol Nibley

A few weeks ago, an employee complained about a co-worker who came to work with a bad cough. The employee was concerned his co-worker would make others sick and asked me to send her home. This is a challenging situation, especially with this season’s severe influenza epidemic. Following are a few questions and answers you may want to consider.

1. Do employers have the right to send employees home if they display influenza-like symptoms?

The short answer is yes. Employers are well advised to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace. A generous sick-leave or PTO policy will help employees feel comfortable staying home if they aren’t well. Even without a paid time-off policy for illness, however, employers must balance the well being of all employees when deciding to send someone home.

2. Can employers require employees to have a flu shot?

Typically, healthcare organizations (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) are the only employers that can require their employees to have a flu shot. Even this sector is coming under scrutiny as some employees cite a religious belief or disability as a reason for exemption from the flu shot requirement. All businesses should make the flu shot available to its employees, whether in an onsite clinic setting or through a reimbursement program.

3. What federal and state laws should be considered when establishing sick-time and leave policies?

In some cases, influenza can be considered a “serious health condition” under the Family Medical Leave Act. Some states and municipalities require paid sick time for employers who meet certain requirements. As a practical matter, most employers should make sure to consider productivity when drafting sick-time and leave policies. Enforce your policies consistently to avoid claims of discrimination.

4. What can employers to do minimize disruption to the workplace and encourage healthful practices?

Quite a few things. You can—

  • Encourage frequent hand washing.
  • Make readily available hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. (One manager I know routinely applies an antibacterial spray to the the door handles, light switches, telephone receivers, and other frequently handled objects in her division’s work areas.)
  • Remind employees to cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing.
  • Consider offering paid sick time to employees so they don’t feel obligated to come to work when they are sick.
  • Allow employees to work from home, if possible, when they have the beginnings of an illness or are recovering from an illness and could still be contagious.
  • Focus on employee health and wellness throughout the year.

More information is available from the EEOC ( and OSHA (

Here’s to your healthy workplace!


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