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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Small Business: Curbing 'sick' days in the summer

Tanner Park in Copiague is one place you

Tanner Park in Copiague is one place you could go if you call in sick to take a long weekend. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Summer is here, and for some employers that means dealing with more unplanned absences.

It's not unheard of for an employee to call in "sick" on a beautiful day, particularly when the kids are home.

While you can't always avoid that, having clear time-off policies and maintaining flexibility during the summer months can help curb those absences.

"Summer is a time when employees are more likely to play hooky," says Joyce Maroney, director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc., a Chelmsford, Massachusetts-based provider of software and services for workforce management.

With that said, "creating a culture in which employees can talk to you about their needs for time off will let you plan for their absence," she notes.

Guidelines, with flexibility. Give employees clear guidelines about what's acceptable and what's not, she says. Have a policy, but offer some flexibility.

"Flexibility is one really powerful strategy," says Maroney.

Christine Donovan, underwriting manager at JLNY Group LLC, a wholesale insurance brokerage in Woodbury, agrees.

The firm offers flextime throughout the year if an employee needs it and has to adjust his or her schedule, she says.

Summer hours. JLNY also offers summer hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the office closes at 2:30 p.m. on Fridays, says Donovan. This allows employees to maximize the day without having to call in "sick."

"It's a nice win-win for the company because they're being flexible in how people work," says Christine Ippolito, principal at Compass Workforce Solutions in Melville, a human resources consulting firm, who likes the idea of flexible summer hours.

PTO bank. She advises companies to consider switching to a Paid Time Off (PTO) bank, where employees have a "bucket" of days they can use for a variety of absences, rather than separating days for illness, vacation or personal use.

If employees know they have five sick days that can be used only for illness, they're more likely to call in sick five times a year, she says. But if they know they have a set number of days they can use for any type of absence, they're more likely to schedule days off in advance, says Ippolito.

Nussbaum Yates Berg Klein & Wolpow LLP, a Melville accounting firm, switched to a PTO bank about five years ago, says managing partner Barry Berg. Employees accrue a day and a half per month or 18 days annually, he notes.

"We allow them to use them however they want," he notes. "It eliminates excuses."

Last year, the firm began offering summer hours, closing at 1 p.m. on Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Employees may leave at 1 p.m. provided they've worked their 40 hours by then, says Berg.

"I had a group of employees that put in for every Friday off in the summer," he said. "That hurts productivity."

People are less inclined now to take the whole day off, because they know they can leave early, he says.

To be sure, most employees want to do the right thing.

"People most of the time will act responsibly if you treat them like adults," says Maroney. Have honest conversations with them about your needs.

Track absences and look for patterns, suggests Roy Saunderson, chief learning officer at Rideau's Recognition Management Institute, a Montreal-based consulting firm.

Try to lighten the mood during the summer, he adds. This could mean a barbecue in the parking lot, free ice pops, or the bosses serving ice cream, he notes.

"Do whatever's not the norm," says Saunderson. "If you treat employees kindly, they feel more inclined to reciprocate."


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