H1N1 exposes weak leave policies
When Great Falls resident Carolyn Cuppernull's 10-year-old daughter came down with swine flu, she didn't have to take time off work to stay home with her.
Cuppernull is senior marketing manager of the Washington office of the law firm Akerman Senterfitt. Under the group's former policy, she would have had to use paid leave to stay home if she or a relative got sick. But the firm recently updated its rules to allow employees to stay home with full pay -- without using leave time -- for H1N1-related absences.
"I have a laptop and a BlackBerry," Cuppernull said. "I was able to attend a meeting telephonically and participate in online training with hardly a blip."
In Washington and across the country, the arrival of the flu season has prompted companies of all sizes to weigh how to accommodate sick workers while keeping the business running. President Obama has declared the swine flu situation a national emergency, and federal agencies recommend that businesses remain flexible and let sick workers stay home.
Congress has also weighed in with a proposal that would mandate employers to offer paid sick leave. Under a bill introduced last week by members of the House Education and Labor Committee, employers with 15 or more workers would be required to provide five paid sick days per year for workers sent home with contagious conditions such as the swine flu.
"Sick workers advised to stay home by their employers shouldn't have to choose between their livelihood and their coworkers' or customer's health," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the education and labor panel, said in a statement. The National Small Business Association, which has not taken a position on the legislation, has in the past criticized similar proposals as harmful for business owners.
"The more restrictive the government is in how businesses can develop their benefits programs, the less flexible business owners can be," said Molly Brogan, a spokeswoman for the small-business group. "If it's paid sick leave, you're paying somebody who's not going to be there and you have to pay somebody to replace them. That has the potential to affect the bottom line for a lot of small businesses."
Mike Aitken, director of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, said that although the legislation attempts to protect employees, the wording of it could do the opposite. The bill is triggered by employers who send their sick workers home. Aitken said he was concerned that employers might get out of providing the sick days simply by forcing workers to stay on the job.
"The way the bill is crafted, one questions whether they will be able to achieve" protections for workers, Aitken said. "We think other approaches should be used."
According to a survey by the group released last week, most human resource managers said they plan to use their current sick-leave policies to accommodate swine flu absences. About 20 percent of firms require a medical statement to clear an employee to return to work.
The Department of Homeland Security has urged employers to establish contingency plans so that they could continue operating if an outbreak of the H1N1 influenza occurs among their workers. The federal government has strongly recommended that businesses force employees with the flu to stay home and that they adopt flexible sick-day policies allowing staff to work from home if a family member becomes infected.
John A. Boardman, executive secretary and treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, the union representing 5,000 Washington-area hotel workers, said his members have numerous options if they need to take time off to care for themselves or a sick relative. He said they could use sick days, vacation or short- and long-term disability time.
"When you have a safety net, you can continue to get income while you're out, and that's helpful," Boardman said.
Wal-Mart, which employs about 1.4 million people in the United States, came under fire from labor groups last week for its sick-leave policy. Full-time workers accrue an average of six sick-leave days per year but are only allowed to use the time after the first day off because of illness. The first day can be covered with a personal or vacation day, or employees will not receive pay. Temporary and part-time workers do not receive sick time but do get personal and vacation days.
In addition, Wal-Mart begins reprimanding workers after four absences of up to three days each over the course of six months. Six absences can lead to termination.
"The policy is really draconian," said Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, which last week published a report detailing the practice. "You drag yourself to work sick, especially during the swine flu pandemic. This should be a concern."
Last week, Wal-Mart issued a clarification of its policy to its more than 3,000 stores across the country, stating that no one will be fired for contracting swine flu or caring for a family member with the illness.
"Clearly, there's been a misunderstanding about what our policy is," said Gisel Ruiz, a senior vice president of Wal-Mart's U.S. stores. "Wal-Mart is encouraging our associates who may be ill to stay home and get well. That's in everyone's best interests."
The company said missed work days because of swine flu will not count as an absence. However, workers will receive pay only if they have accrued sick leave or personal or vacation days.
According to Gary Laugharn, principal at human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates, about 20 percent of national retailers require employees to have been sick for up to a week before leave benefits kick in. He said many of the companies he works with have tried to combat the H1N1 virus by providing plenty of hand sanitizer in the stores and encouraging sick workers not to come in.
But for the roughly 50 million workers who do not receive sick time, the options are more stark: work or don't get paid.
Leah Daniels, who sells pots, pans and other cookware from her Capitol Hill store called Hill's Kitchen, said her one full-time and three part-time workers do not receive sick days and would simply have to miss a day of pay if they were to take time off to recover from the flu. "I don't have a contingency plan," Daniels said. "There is no way for someone to work from home."