Absence Management in the Wake of COVID-19

Trying to manage a business and workforce during a pandemic was not something owners, managers or HR professionals worried about, but here we are! In addition to understanding the CARES Act, PPP loans, contending with furloughs, layoffs and new workplace safety protocols we are faced with new twists on the ubiquitous business issue of managing employee attendance!

COVID-19 has presented business leaders with new attendance related questions.

Most organizations have some type of defined attendance policy, which allows for a specified number of unplanned, unscheduled absences without penalty or disciplinary action. When this allowable time off is exhausted, additional occurrences of lost time generally result in corrective action of some nature. With the new twist of COVID-19 related absences, organizations should decide how these absences will fit into their existing attendance management policy and communicate any policy modifications to employees.   

At this time of stress and concern for personal safety and the safety of our workforce, organizations may want to exempt specific COVID-19 related absences as occurrences under their attendance policy, for morale as well as safety reasons. Organizations would not want employees with historically poor attendance records to not inform them when they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms due to fear of disciplinary action under the attendance policy. 

During this pandemic when many employees may experience COVID related absences, strictly administering the company’s current attendance policy to COVID-19 absences could result in excessive disciplinary actions and lead to disengagement by employees. If you have a formal attendance policy and have decided to exempt absences due to COVID-19 as occurrences, it will be important that your policy exemptions be clearly defined and consistently applied.  

In addition, as we look at COVID related attendance issues we cannot fail to remember other applicable State and Federal Time off and Leave laws. If you are an applicable employer with 50 or more employees, you need to take Federal and State FMLA laws into consideration. Depending on the seriousness of the COVID-19 symptoms the individual or their family member is experiencing the absence may or may not qualify as a “serious health condition” under FMLA. FMLA defines a serious health condition as one that causes MORE than three calendar days (absent from scheduled worked) of incapacity AND two or more treatments by a healthcare provider. A mild COVID case may not qualify, there may be a positive diagnosis and more than three days of incapacity but if there are not two or more treatments by a health care provider, the provisions of FMLA do not apply. A more serious case of COVID complicated by underlying health conditions may qualify under FMLA if the individual needs to seek and receive two or more medical treatments by a healthcare provider.  Absences that qualify under FMLA are protected from disciplinary action.

If an employee is using available time under mandated State (MA, CT, RI) paid sick time laws, this time off must be without discipline as well. 

The provisions of the FFCRA “Cares Act” applicable to employers with under 500 employees establishes that it “shall be unlawful for any employer to discharge, discipline or in any other manner discriminate against any employee who takes leave in accordance with the Act.

In conclusion, consider your attendance policy; determine what modifications if any are required or appropriate. Communicate these modifications to managers and employees in order to reduce confusion and ensure consistency in policy application.