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Employers 'walking tight rope' as flu season creates more uncertainty in workplaces

Domenique Camacho Moran, a partner at Farrell Fritz

Domenique Camacho Moran, a partner at Farrell Fritz in Uniondale, says COVID-19 has forced employers to roll out healthy workplace protocols. Credit: Jim Lennon Photography/Farrell Fritz

As if COVID isn’t enough for workplaces to navigate, flu season is creating yet another layer of uncertainty for employers.

Since many flu and COVID symptoms overlap, health and legal experts say employers should follow the same guidelines that apply to COVID.

For instance, if an employee is symptomatic they shouldn’t report to work and should be evaluated by a physician, says Domenique Camacho Moran, a partner at Farrell Fritz in Uniondale.

"The good news is COVID has allowed employers, and in many respects, forced employers to roll out healthy workplace protocols," says Moran who heads the firm's labor and employment practice.

This includes temperature checks, routine cleaning and sanitization and daily health screening assessments that include questionnaires on COVID-related symptoms such as fever, chills and cough, Moran says.

If they have COVID, they need to quarantine for the appropriate time frame, she says.

As a general rule, a runny nose alone is unlikely to be COVID, says Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

But he says it can be difficult to discern because some people are asymptomatic.

As a best practice, Farber says, if someone is showing signs of illness have them work from home and get them tested.

With multiple overlapping symptoms (other than loss of taste and smell for COVID-19) "you can’t make a diagnosis just based on symptoms," Farber says.

On a positive note, one early sign it might be a mild flu season is that influenza cases are drastically down in Southern Hemisphere, Farber says.

That's likely attributed to the use of masks, hand washing and sanitization tied to COVID. But it’s still too early to tell and while "it’s good to be optimistic, it’s better to be prepared," Farber says, recommending people get the flu vaccine.

Legally, employers can mandate employees get the vaccine, but since it presents legal and HR challenges if employees resist, employers shouldn’t force employees, Moran says.

A better strategy might be offering it as a voluntary perk, she says.

That’s what Mitch Maiman, president of Intelligent Product Solutions, a Hauppauge-based product design and development firm, does each year.

This year, between employees and family members and contract staff, the company estimates it will provide 50 people with flu shots.

It’s not mandatory, Maiman says. "We always encourage staff to get the flu shot here or at the location of their choice."

However, when employees who receive the flu shot experience side effects — including flu-like symptoms of nausea, chills, aches and fever — that presents another challenge for employers.

Christine Ippolito, principal at Hauppauge-based Compass Workforce Solutions, an HR consulting firm, said one of her client’s employee who got a flu shot experienced flu-like symptoms. Because the employee called out sick and described possible COVID-19 symptoms, she was asked to see her provider who administered the shot. After the provider determined the symptoms were side effects of the flu shot, she was cleared to return to work with her doctor’s approval, Ippolito says.

She says this climate is very challenging and there’s heightened sensitivity in the workplace for anyone that appears sick or calls out sick.

Employers are "walking a tight rope" so to be prudent it's best to refer employees with symptoms to their physician, Ippolito adds.

Employers should educate employees about the symptoms of COVID-19, and before each shift, have them verify they’ve not had flu or COVID-19-like symptoms in the preceding 24 hours, says Travis Vance, co-chair of Fisher Phillips’ Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management practice.

He advises employers send home sick employees and ask them to seek medical attention. Employers can require an employee to take a COVID test even if they’re not sure if it’s the flu, he says.

But at the end of the day, it’s still going to be challenging, he says.

"In this environment, people are going to freak out if someone appears ill," says Vance. "You can’t get away with the sneeze or cough anymore … you have to err on the side of caution."

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Fast Fact:

A Mercer survey of about 100 U.S. employer respondents found that 60% were providing special communications on the importance of the flu shot this year.

Source: https://www.mercer.us/our-thinking/healthcare/get-your-flu-shot-and-make-sure-your-employees-get-one-too.html

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