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With flu here, sick leave policies get closer look

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009, at 5:08 p.m.

With a new wave of swine flu due to strike this fall, workers who start sneezing and coughing on the job may want to flee for home. Others may have to take off to care for children or other family members who become ill.

But workers who have exhausted their sick leave and used up their vacation time may be tempted to stay at work.

A virus, no fun under any circumstances, is more miserable if you are worried about losing your job or not earning any pay while you're lying in bed.

The federal government is urging employers to allow ill workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs and to be flexible when workers' children are affected because of the flu or school being closed.

Local employers are offering some flexibility, but not much.

In Kansas, about 547,000 workers — 40 percent of the 1,365,000 workers in the state — don't have paid sick days, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Of the 1,110,000 private-sector employees, 47 percent lack paid sick days.

There are 255,000 federal, state and local government employees in Kansas. Federal and state employees receive sick days, but the institute estimates that 15 percent of local government employees don't.

Workers in Kansas don't have much legal protection. Kansas is an at-will state, meaning employers can fire anyone at any time for any reason, unless that reason violates the law.

Workers might qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act if they have worked for a year at company with 50 or more employees and are incapacitated for at least three days under a physician's care. The act also covers them if they have to take care of a member of the immediate family. But that leave generally is unpaid. The FMLA protects only their jobs, according to a Wichita labor attorney.

Local governments

The city of Wichita isn't creating a new sick leave category for H1N1.

"If someone calls in with flu-like symptoms, we're going to treat it as normal sick leave," said Sarah Gilbert, human resources director.

But it is allowing probationary employees who normally don't get sick leave in the first six months to take it, she said.

The city also is aware not all its employees would get to see a doctor, so it is not asking for documentation for sick leave, she said.

The city has provided seasonal flu shots to 600 workers, and is encouraging people to stay home if sick and not risk spreading it, she said.

Workers could still face disciplinary action if they don't show up for work after exhausting their leave, she said. But the city is suggesting that its departments re-examine their policies through the flu season, she said. Some departments, such as those dealing with public safety, have stricter policies than others.

Sedgwick County is encouraging employees who have a fever at or above 100 degrees to stay home until at least 24 hours after the fever has gone away without medications.

Employees would need to use their sick time and vacation time when they become ill. If they've used it all up, they'd go into leave-without-pay status, said Charlene Stevens, assistant county manager..

"We're not treating H1N1 differently than any other illness," she said.

Some workers may be able to work from home if their jobs can be performed there, she said. The county also is telling department heads to allow employees to return to work without a doctor's note 24 hours after a fever has been resolved without medication.

"We want to make sure if there is an outbreak of H1N1 we don't overwhelm clinics by getting doctor's notes," Stevens said.

The Wichita school district has discussed taking a case-by-case approach with employees who become ill after using up their leave time, said Susan Arensman, district spokeswoman.

"We don't want a blanket policy so people can't take advantage of it," she said.

In case of teacher absences, the district would rely on its pool of substitutes. In case of widespread teacher and student absences, the district could combine classes, she said.

"We've discussed different options and ways we can handle that. It's the same as we'd do for any flu season," Arensman said.

Local businesses

Large companies have a variety of sick leave plans depending on length of service, union contracts and other reasons. They generally don't plan big changes for H1N1.

Debbie Gann, spokesperson for Spirit AeroSystems, said the company isn't amending its normal flu policies for the virus. Some may have it and never be diagnosed, she said.

The company is doing a lot of communicating with employees on hand washing and other preventive measures, and telling them to stay home if they're sick.

If employees have used up all their sick leave and become ill with H1N1, the company would work with the employee and their doctor on a case-by-case basis to ensure they wouldn't be disciplined for missing work, Gann said.

But it wouldn't pay employees during such absences. That's normal policy.

"It's just like any other illness," she said.

Kelly Donaghy, Boeing disaster preparedness spokesperson, based in Huntington Beach, Calif., said the company did a lot of pandemic planning during the avian flu scare a few years ago. She said employees and departments within the company have a lot of options to deal with absences.

The company has standard leave polices it must follow, but it offers flexibility to managers in case of widespread absences, she said.

Companies face a balancing act of keeping business going while ensuring employees' health, Donaghy said.

"No one wins if a lot of people are losing their jobs because of a pandemic," she said.

Local small businesses generally aren't tinkering with sick leave policies for the swine flu.

A poll by the Wichita Independent Business Association recently asked members if they had a policy to deal with H1N1, and if not, whether they planned to come up with one.

Seventy-five percent of those who responded said, "No."

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