Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers did not have flu-specific policies and procedures (healthcare employers being one significant exception). However, seasonal flu can be a serious and dangerous illness, and employers should not treat it lightly. Many of the lessons we collectively learned from COVID-19 are equally applicable to the flu. And employers should also note that federal enforcement agencies are not ignoring the flu.
Guidance from the CDC. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a Flu Resources for Business webpage that collects information and resources for employers in three major categories:
- Prevent flu. The CDC offers tips for preventing the spread of flu at work, including the following:
- Encourage employees to become vaccinated against flu.
- Consider hosting a flu vaccine clinic and provide resources on where to get a vaccine in the community.
- Develop/review sick leave policies to encourage employees to stay home while sick.
- Separate and send home any employees who are sick.
- Develop telework (if appropriate for the job) and leave policies to enable employees to care for sick family members or for children in the case of school closures.
- Employees with a sick family member may come to work as long as they are well, but should monitor their condition. Those with underlying conditions or who are pregnant should seek prompt treatment if they become ill.
- Implement preventive measures at work, such as providing tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap and/or sanitizer.
- Provide workers with information on flu risk factors and preventive actions on respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.
- Promote vaccination. The CDC discusses the benefits of vaccination for both employers and employees, and offers suggestions on encouraging vaccination and hosting a flu clinic. It provides specific suggestions on planning, promotion and logistics.
- Stay home when sick. The CDC also provides guidance for when employees should stay home and when they may return to work. If an employee has a fever, they should not return to work until fever-free for 24 hours without medication. If they have other symptoms, they should stay home for at least 4-5 days after the onset of such symptoms.
Other CDC resources on the webpage include guidance on a pandemic response plan and print resources.
Vaccination Mandates and the EEOC. Of course, as we saw in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination mandates are one way to promote vaccination. Employers who choose to implement such a mandate should be aware that exemptions for medical or religious reasons may be required as reasonable accommodations. This issue received heightened attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, and employers who have previously imposed flu vaccination mandates may experience greater pushback than before.
It is worth noting that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has recently brought suit against a hospital that denied a religious exemption from its flu vaccine mandate to a maintenance employee. In its press release, the EEOC noted that the employee had previously been granted such an exemption, and specifically noted that the employee had “extremely limited interaction with the public or staff.”
These are considerations that come into play when assessing a request for exemption from a vaccination mandate, and employers need to be thoughtful in imposing mandates and reviewing exemption requests.
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