Should Employees Work While “Out Sick?”

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Should employees work from home while out sickFall is upon us!  While the thought of pumpkin spice lattes and cooler weather may bring a smile, don’t forget that this also means that flu season is close at hand.  Employers should ensure that they are prepared with a solid plan on how to handle requests from ill employees who want to work from home.

Increasing numbers of employers have begun to offer telecommuting options to employees as a job perk.  But what about employees who want to work from home while they are sick?  Should it be allowed?

Obviously, sick employees should not come in to work where they can potentially spread their illnesses to others.  (Sometimes those who are not contagious might consider staying home as well, as no one really wants to hear a coworker cough up a lung in the office.)  However, work still needs to be completed.  Employees still need to earn money.  Allowing ill employees to work from home sounds like the perfect solution, but is it really?

Rather than waiting for this situation to come up and figuring it out as you go, consult with your HR department or Professional Employer Organization (PEO) to create a policy that addresses this specifically.  There are several things you will need to consider.  For example, can the work an employee is doing be successfully completed from home?  How productive can the employee really be while he or she is suffering from an illness?  If the employee is too sick to come in, shouldn’t he or she be resting or seeking medical care, rather than working?  Does allowing this fit with the company’s culture?

If you decide to allow employees to work from home while they are sick, start your policy by addressing which positions can be allowed this flexibility, as this arrangement may not be appropriate for each position.  Next, determine if there are any specific tasks that are not permitted to be handled at home by an employee who may be impaired by an illness.  (Running a simple report might be okay, but a complex analysis of financial data might be a bit of a stretch for an employee who is feeling under the weather.)

From there, you may want to consider a hard stop for employees who are “too sick” to work and really should be resting.  This can be tricky, as you do not want to become the “illness police” or ask an employee for medical information.  (Asking for a doctor’s note is okay, checking up on employees to see how they are feeling, and requesting a return-to-work in the office ETA is fine.  However, asking employees for details about their illness, or even their diagnosis, is a big no-no.)

For example, you may want to consider allowing an employee to work from home while sick for a limited number of days.  As another example, you may want to include in your policy that an employee with a fever is not permitted to work from home.  Also, if a sick employee is working from home and you see that the work he or she is submitting is not up to par (and this isn’t working out), you need some language in your policy that grants you the discretion to discontinue the arrangement.

You may also want to stipulate at what point employees are not “sick enough” to work from home.  If someone is suffering from seasonal allergies, or is not contagious, do you want them in the office to work?

Finally, make sure to reference any related telecommuting, company property, and timekeeping (or other) policies you may already have in place that are relevant to this issue.

If you decide not to allow employees to work from home while they are sick, a clear policy stating this should be in place.  Just remember that under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), employees must be paid for any productive work they perform, even if it is not authorized.

Allowing employees to work from home (whether they are sick or not) requires a degree of trust on your part, and professionalism and maturity on theirs.  In a perfect world, no one would get sick and this wouldn’t even be an issue, but since employee illness is inevitable, it is wise to have a policy in place.

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Image: Andriy Popov