Updated March 19, 2020 with the latest information about The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act of 2020 (part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act).

Mandated or voluntary quarantine create confusion for employers and employees alike. Most of us have never experienced a global public health crisis that has affected virtually every aspect of our lives.

Business owners and Human Resources professionals are doing their best to protect their employees while continuing to serve their customers, clients and—in the case of healthcare providers—their patients.

How do you pay quarantined employees? What if they aren’t sick?

First, we will look at obligations under federal laws. Whether or not the employee is sick is a determining factor for FMLA. We discuss FMLA after we discuss broader Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requirements. This is intended to be a general guide. Competent legal guidance is a good idea.

NOTE: On March 18, The Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020 was passed. This new legislation provides additional assistance to individuals affected by the COVID-19 crisis. It provides employers with tax credits to offset newly required paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave and specific health plan expenses. We explain how this law affects how you pay employees who take sick leave due to the coronavirus pandemic.

How do I pay quarantined employees?

  1. Identify employee status
  2. Use a timekeeping app to track hours
  3. Determine if FMLA, union contracts, or PTO applies

Identify employee status: exempt, nonexempt, fluctuating work week (FWW), subject to collective bargaining agreement

Is the employee exempt?

FLSA requires employers to pay an exempt worker his or her weekly salary in any workweek in which they work. Whether or not they are quarantined.

Did the exempt employee perform work during the week in which they were quarantined?

If a salaried employee is quarantined after they perform work during a workweek, the employer must pay them their entire salary for that week.

Exempt quarantined employees working at home?

If quarantined exempt employees are working at home, they must be compensated the entire weekly salary for any week in which they perform work.

Exempt quarantined employees at home not working?

The employer doesn’t have to compensate an exempt employee for a workweek in which the employee doesn’t perform any work. We talk about PTO ahead.

Is the employee nonexempt?

The FLSA requires employers to pay nonexempt employees for the time they actually work. Thus, an employer need not compensate hourly employees for time spent in quarantine unless the employee performs work OR there are state requirements for providing paid leave to hourly, nonexempt employees.

Do you have hourly employees working at home during quarantine?

If hourly employees work at home during quarantine, they must be paid for all of their time worked.

How do I track time for hourly employees working at home during quarantine?

Use an employee timekeeping system with a mobile app. Your hourly quarantined employees can clock in at home on their phone, tablet, or laptop.

How do I know my hourly (nonexempt) quarantined employees are at home working?

If you want to ensure your hourly at-home employees are where they say they are, get an employee timekeeping app with geotracking. Their manager (or you) can see where they punch in and out. Geofencing takes it a step further. If you configure a geofence in your mobile employee timekeeping app (it just takes a second), you will be alerted if the employee tries to punch in outside of the fence (geographic location). Read more about geofencing here.

Paid by fluctuating workweek (FWW)

Nonexempt workers paid on a FWW (as defined by the FLSA) generally must be paid their full FWW compensation for each workweek in which they perform any work, whether under quarantine or not.

Exempt quarantined employees with PTO

If your employee is quarantined, you can generally require them to use vacation time or PTO, pursuant to your company PTO policy. This is tricky. If you have any question, consult your legal counsel.

What if I send an hourly employee home in the middle of a shift?

Your state law may require you pay the nonexempt worker for a minimum number of hours for the day. Check with your state department of labor.

Do you have union employees?

Union contracts could affect your absence management during the coronavirus.

Employers with union employees should review their collective bargaining agreements to determine if there are any restrictions on asking people to take unpaid administrative leave or sick leave. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)

The Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020

This law provides additional assistance to individuals affected by the COVID-19 crisis. As part of this program, employers with fewer than 500 employees will be required to provide:

  • Up to 80 hours of emergency paid leave to full-time employees along with special considerations for part-time employees.
  • Up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave related to caring for a child.
  • In addition, the bill requires group health plans, health insurers and government programs to provide free coronavirus testing.

What Do Employers Need To Do To Qualify?

Employers can qualify for tax credits if they are able to:

  • Provide employees with a special allocation of qualified PTO;
  • Track employee usage of qualified PTO separately from regular PTO; and
  • Report qualified PTO usage in a compliant tax filing.

The Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020 defines an “emergency leave day” as a day in which an individual is unable to work due to one of four qualifying reasons related to COVID-19:

  • The worker has a current diagnosis of COVID-19.
  • The worker is quarantined (including self-imposed quarantine), at the instruction of a health care provider, employer, or government official, to prevent the spread of COVID19.
  • The worker is caring for another person who has COVID-19 or who is under a quarantine related to COVID-19.
  • The worker is caring for a child or other individual who is unable to care for themself due to the COVID-19-related closing of their school, child care facility, or other care programs.

It also defines other key terms including “eligible individual,” which is someone who was working in the thirty days before they were impacted by COVID-19.

Qualifying for relief under this law can help your business weather this crisis.

What if I have to close my business temporarily due to the coronavirus?

If you have to close your business temporarily due to the coronavirus, you can generally require exempt employees to take vacation or PTO. You must compensate the employee their full weekly salary. If the worker doesn’t have earned vacation or PTO, you must pay them their regular weekly salary IF they do any work during the week. Otherwise, they could lose their exempt status.

Does FMLA leave apply for employees or family members who may contract coronavirus?

Yes, assuming that the FMLA applies to the employer, coronavirus would qualify as a “serious health condition” under FMLA. The employee could take FMLA leave if either the employee or an immediate family member contracts COVID-19 (or any other illness). In addition, the worker would be entitled to job reinstatement. Your state may have additional protections.

For an employee to invoke their 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave, he or she must have a “serious health condition” and otherwise satisfy the FMLA eligibility criteria. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 have been reported as flu-like, COVID-19 may be considered a serious health condition depending on the circumstances. Accordingly, an employee with COVID-19 or an employee who is taking care of a qualifying family member with COVID-19 may be permitted to take protected FMLA leave. However, employees who refuse to come to work out of fear of contracting COVID-19 would not typically qualify for FMLA leave. (SHRM), February 27, 2020

If your company is subject to FMLA, and the employee is eligible for FMLA, you must provide unpaid leave. Make sure you follow state leave laws as well.

Would I need to pay workers’ compensation for workers who contract coronavirus?

If the employee contracted the disease in the course of their employment, it would probably apply. Does the employees’ work require them to be exposed to persons who are infected? Most healthcare workers meet this criteria. If an employee incidentally contracts the disease from a co-worker, there will likely be no workers’ compensation liability.

Haven’t sent workers home yet?

This graph has been published everywhere in the past few weeks. I am including here in case you haven’t seen it. It helps show why it’s critical to enact measures now to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Allowing employees to work at home protects your business, your community, and healthcare workers.

How to design an absence management policy that works

When the coronavirus crisis has passed, you will still have to manage absences. Let’s discuss how to create an absence management policy.

Employee absences occur within every company. It may occur in the form of tardy employees, sick leave, or paid time off. Designing a good absence management policy that works for both your company and your employees can be a daunting task. Go too strict and inflexible and you may have higher attrition and more stressed out employees who produce less. It is a balancing act between cost and benefit. After all, when employees take time, you essentially pay them not to work. What benefit does that have on your company?

First, let’s define the difference between absence management and leave management. Absence management is the program or policy that your company has to control unexpected leaves due to illness, injury, or emergencies. Absence management includes how you control unscheduled, unexpected, and excessive absences. It includes how you handle late employees.

Leave management covers expected and planned time off. It is the process by which employees request time off work and managers approve or deny those requests.

Your company should clearly outline the policy and procedures for handling both types of employee absences in your employee handbook. This provides employees with a clear idea of employer expectations and a clear path for both unplanned and planned absences.

Absence Management

Absences come in all different forms and sizes. It can come in the form of employee tardiness, minor illnesses, or long-term absences. How you deal with and handle absences will have a great impact on employees as they return to work and re-engage with their jobs.

Absences have a negative impact on the business in several ways:

  • Increase employer expense: Employers have to “fill in the gaps” by hiring temporary staff, filling in for a subordinate, or paying other employees overtime. Instead of working on more productive tasks, managers spend time filling vacancies or covering for employees. Higher wages are paid, either to temporary staff or through overtime. This is a hard cost of absences.
  • Lower morale: Employees who routinely cover for absent employees can feel burnout quicker. They may feel used. Increased workloads mean higher stress. If one employee is perceived to be absent an unfair number of times, this can increase perceived bias by management to allow these absences.
  • Increased mistakes: Staff that is required to cover other job positions or meet with clients they don’t have relationships with are more likely to make mistakes. Employees who return to work after repeated absences or a lengthy absence is more likely to make a mistake or be unaware of changes.
  • Decreased productivity: Covering shifts can mean your employees are unable to focus on the priorities of their own responsibilities. This happens as “emergency” tasks take priority over less urgent, but more important tasks. Employees get stressed, which makes distraction easier.

The Cause of Employee Absenteeism

First, let’s take a look at many reasons why employees are absent from work:  

  • Minor illness or injury: employees are absent for a short period of time.
  • Personal emergencies: alternative childcare for a sick child, domestic violence, car malfunction, or another personal issue that impedes the employee’s ability to show up to work timely or at all during a particular shift.
  • Reccuring medical conditions: impact the employees’ absences over the course of a long time. They also impact presenteeism, when an employee shows up to work, but fails to be fully productive due to the medical condition.
  • Mental illness and health: stress and burnout impact employee mental health. They also exasperate mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Mental illness is often cited as a top reason for employee absences, even when it is not the reason reported to management.

Understanding these reasons helps you to develop a better plan around absence management.  It is important to get the real reason why an employee is absent. But, that’s not the only step.

Clarify your policy around absences

Your policy should address things such as tardies and short-term leave. It should also include extended leave policies. Define what is unacceptable. Identify solutions for employees facing unexpected absences and who should be notified. Outline company resources to help with employee absences. Your resources can include direct managers, human resources, or outside help.

For example, domestic violence often shows up with an excuse of injury, car troubles, or other excuses. Mental illness is the same. Employees cite other external reasons for absence when anxiety or depression is the actual cause. You can help employees to deal with these external factors by providing resources that employees can turn to in a crisis. This can help to stem absences.

Be sure to include information regarding employee leaves such as FMLA and make sure that your policy covers absences protected by law such as those caused by pregnancy disability or other disabilities.

  • Identify your policy around absences:
  • Identify employee procedure when absences occur
  • Outline resources for employees facing an absence
  • Cover absences covered by the law

Track and Measure Employee Absences

It’s impossible to really understand the absences in your company if you aren’t tracking them. Make sure that you have a reliable timekeeping system that will accurately track employee schedules and absences when they fail to show up for work. You can take a granular look at individual days and shifts or look at overall patterns, trends and seasons.

This allows you to see specific employee patterns, identify managers with increased absenteeism, or show potential issues with specific locations or shifts.

If you don’t track absences, you can’t improve it. Measuring allows you the data you need to address issues without attacking individuals or making employees defensive. For more information on how Timeworks Plus can help your business track and monitor employee absences, fill out the form below this article.

Stay in Communication

When employees are tardy or absent, it is vital to communicate with them. Don’t assume that employees know that regular tardies are an unacceptable habit. Instead, touch base with them, find out the real cause behind the tardy and discuss options for solutions. When employees are sick, touching base, instead of simply acknowledging a text, is vital to showing them that you care and are concerned with their well-being. It also provides a great way to keep employees informed of changes while they are gone.

Generally, touching base early in the absence provides a way for the employer to check in on the employee, provide well-wishes, and to discuss a timeframe for communication that will work for the employee and manager. Employees can identify how they would like to be contacted during an extended leave and how often. Some employees like regular check-ins while others feel pressured to return to work if they hear from their employer too often. Thus, it’s important to discuss and set up a framework for all contacts at the company to follow. This will also help to reduce redundant calls from managers, HR, and payroll.

Employers can use an employee portal to provide updates to absent employees. Updates, communications, and resources can be made available. Thus, employees who are absent for an extended period can check in, read the latest or watch news releases, and feel a part of the company during that time. This provides flexibility, but also provides a verifiable method of issuing employee notices without harassing the employee.

Have a “Back to Work” Process

Create a “back to work” process. This can be something as simple as a checklist kept in your workforce management software. It should include steps such as a return to work interview, reorientation on new policies and procedures, and updates on changes while they were gone.  

  • Welcomed back to work by manager
  • Back to work interview
  • Reorientation on updates, changes, or news
  • Collection of all documents related to the leave

Employees returning to work after an absence should have a “back to work” interview. Managers can welcome the employee back to work and update them. This can be an informal discussion where their manager updates them on any relevant news during a brief absence.  This can include updates on customer messages or conversation with other account reps.

Or, it can be a lengthier process wherein employees are given time and resources to adjust to working again.

It can include a modified schedule for the employee to climatize back into full-time work. Or it can include a discussion regarding how the employer can accommodate an employee’s long-term disability or medical needs.

Back to work processes should include gathering any further documentation required by FMLA, sick leave, or other labor laws. They can include setting the employee backup on benefits and re-orientating them to the workplace and new policies implemented during their absence.

By utilizing a back to work policy, you help to ensure that employees returning to work don’t feel unnecessary stress and anxiety over the change in schedule and responsibilities.

Leave Management

Unlike absence management, leave management usually revolves around planned absences. From a numbers standpoint,  leave management appears to be counter-intuitive. You pay employees to not work. However, leave management lowers employee stress, provides better work/life balance.

Accurately plan for leave requests

How many employees can be off at a given time?

If you have a number in your head, then consider if that number should be the same year round. Although many managers have a set number of employees who can “take” time off on any given week, the reality is much different. Business ebbs and flows. Some weeks allow for more employees to take PTO, while other weeks produce greater demand. But the only way to really know the demands of the business is through historical records.

The winter holidays (Thanksgiving through New Years) is often a very busy time for retailers. However, other employers may see a marked decrease in customer traffic and demand. Make sure to rely on your workforce management data and plan week by week for allowable absences. This will help you to approve extra PTO requests when the business needs naturally slows down.

Make PTO easy for employees

Don’t shame employees who take time off. Don’t make it difficult for employees to request time off. Time away from work is important for employees to maintain a healthy balance and it ranks as a high priority on employee benefits.

Ideally, PTO is requested in advance. However, employees are human and subject to poor planning. Family or friends may invite them on spur-of-the-moment activities that are highly valued to the employee. So it’s important to provide a means for employees to request time off.

An employee portal becomes a valuable tool because employees can request time off at the time they are thinking about it. They don’t have to wait until the next workday to request time off. It provides managers with current requests. This means that both employees and managers can better plan for time off.

Another way to provide flexibility for PTO requests is to allow employees to initiate “shift swapping.” This allows employees to agree to swap a shift, which then has to be approved by a manager. This helps eliminate the time spent by managers to find a replacement. Shift swapping is handled in TimeSimplicity.

Employers can enable PTO sharing, where employees can donate extra time off to an employee who faces special circumstances. This helps to build community and foster goodwill.

Lastly, don’t forget to give employees access to self-service when handling their leave tasks. Provide access to your employee handbook, Q&A, and leave balances on the employee portal. Finally, let employees submit FMLA certificates electronically vía the portal.  

Respond to leave requests promptly

Managers who respond to leave requests immediately help foster communication. Employees can immediately know if they will be able to continue their plans for time off. Managers can view time off requests vía their workstation or a mobile device.

Use an absence calendar

An absence calendar helps managers to see at a glance who is scheduled off today and in the near future. THey can better plan. Absence calendars make it easier for managers to respond because they can quickly see who is scheduled to be off during the same time period. Managers can access their absence calendar on their mobile devices.

Be transparent

Employees don’t like to be left in the dark. Be transparent and they are more likely to be part of the solution. If employees understand how much time off is allocated and why they are more likely to plan around busy seasons. Employees know when they are buses and when they have periods where there is more conversation time. Let them be a part of the conversation.

Additionally, transparency helps to alleviate disgruntled employees who don’t get requested time off. Employees see how many requests are ahead of theirs and learn that earlier requests get approved easier. If you prioritize time off by seniority, then having a clear process helps new employees to know when the deadlines for senior requests are over so they can promptly request time off.

Conclusion

Reduce the impact of unexpected absences through a good absence management process. This helps you to increase employee notice of absences and helps employees to transition back to work. Employees time off helps them to recover from illness, reset their stress levels, and increase production. Make sure you have the tools and policies in place to maximize your ROI. 

By Annemaria Duran and Liz Strikwerda. Last updated March 16, 2020