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Sick? Stay Home: Employers embrace paid sick leave amid pandemic

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As the enduring impacts of the coronavirus pandemic take shape, one change that is gaining traction is extending sick leave.

At the height of stay-at-home orders in April, a Gallup poll found 62% of U.S. workers reported working from home during the crisis. Now, as many employees have returned to the office, employers are looking for ways to keep them safe from COVID-19, which has infected more than 4.3 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, adopted in April, requires most employers with under 500 employees to provide paid sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons. But some business owners are thinking beyond the pandemic.

“It’s always been the badge of honor. I don’t really feel good, but I’m going to tough it out and go to work,” said Don Christenson, president and CEO of Strafford-based Christenson Transportation Inc. “We started messaging that it was no longer a badge of honor, and in fact, it was more of an infringement on other people’s rights.”

Christenson said employees who can work from home now have five paid work-from-home days through its new infectious disease policy. That’s in addition to an existing 14 paid days off available to all of its 300 employees. He said the new policy, which likely will be expanded, helps employees who are sick but able to work to avoid using what could be a vacation day. And the policy goes beyond COVID-19.

“You should not bring a cold, you should not bring the common flu or any other contagious type of disease to the workplace,” Christenson said. “Each person has a social responsibility to monitor your own health.”

The trucking business is in good company. A report from Illinois-based business consulting firm Alight Solutions LLC found that nearly half of employers surveyed have implemented or plan to adjust their sick leave or paid time off policies in response to COVID-19, and another 11% are considering such changes.

Lynette Weatherford, president of HR Advantage LLC, said she’s fielded many calls on expanded sick leave, and infectious disease and remote work policies. Christenson was among them.

“This is a movement where a lot of employers are revising their handbooks to include infectious disease,” she said of COVID-19. “It has changed the way we all view workplace [practices] and policy.”

Growing trend
Weatherford said while several states require employers to offer paid sick leave, that’s not the case in Missouri. COVID-19 has changed that temporarily.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is in effect through December, requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to offer two weeks of paid sick leave at an employee’s regular pay to those who are unable to work when quarantined or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The act also requires two weeks of paid leave at two-thirds pay if an employee is caring for someone who is sick or is in quarantine, and up to 12 weeks for an employee caring for a child whose school or day care is closed due to COVID-19.

Employers are eligible for reimbursement of those costs through payroll tax credits.

Businesses who employ more than 50 people are required to provide leave through the Family Medical Leave Act, but that federal law does not require the time to be paid. Weatherford said employers who have more than 500 employees are not required to provide paid leave specific to COVID-19 illnesses, but many already provided “robust” paid time off.

Springfield’s largest employers, CoxHealth and Mercy Hospital Springfield, announced they would provide two weeks of paid emergency sick leave in March on top of regular PTO to employees who became sick with or are exposed to COVID-19, according to hospital spokespersons. Mercy has since ended that benefit.

Jimm Swafford, owner of Jimm’s Steakhouse & Pub, has had four employees take PTO through the federal act due to COVID-19 exposures. No employees tested positive.

“The program is really good because the act instantly gives you that money back as a tax credit,” he said.

Swafford said pre-COVID, managers were eligible for paid sick days as needed, as well as paid vacation. Servers received paid vacation days only. But that will change post-COVID, he said, because it’s the right thing to do for his “family” of employees.

Weatherford said paid sick and vacation leave, which has been combined via modern human resources policies, has long been viewed as an attraction and retention tool for businesses. She said in light of the coronavirus pandemic, she anticipates more employers will begin offering paid sick leave, expanded sick leave or make remote work more accessible. But as it’s not required by state or federal governments, and many employers are closely watching their spending, it may take time.

According to the 2019 National Compensation Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of the lowest-paid workers nationwide have access to paid sick leave, while nearly all of the highest-paid workers have access. But those numbers are gradually increasing. The same survey finds overall 73% of private-industry workers had access to paid sick leave in 2018, up from 63% in 2012.

“I do feel like this will change the mindset of employers because they want to retain their workers,” she said. “But as an employer, it’s [left to] them to fund it right now. They have to make that difficult decision.”

Changing culture
At Paragon Architecture LLC, Business Manager Beth Keeling said its policy did not change due to COVID-19 because the firm already offered unlimited paid time off.

“That policy allows people to make that decision based off how they feel versus that desperate feeling of utilizing a sick day and only having a certain number left,” she said. “We don’t push people to come in when they don’t feel well because we’re in a communal environment. And we have technology to support us.”

She said no employees have been exposed to COVID-19, but people have opted to work from home if they are experiencing any symptoms.

“No one has thought twice about saying, ‘I’m feeling a little off today. I’m working from home,’” she said.

While taking time off has always been encouraged when needed, the pandemic has created a shift in how people view sick time at the architecture firm.

“It used to be that a person has called in sick three times this week and it really had a stigma attached,” she said. “Now, we are grateful that you aren’t possibly bringing something in that could have huge ramifications.”

At his trucking company, Christenson said productivity has not suffered as employees work from home. Currently, the team is evenly split between working in the office at home, and every two weeks they switch. For his drivers, he said they’re probably in one of the safest professions as they spend most of their time alone in the truck. Rest stops are cleaning bathrooms every 10 minutes and showers after each use, he said, and his drivers are wearing gloves to gas up and cleaning their cabs multiple times a day.

“A lot of it is overkill, but we’re trying to protect our workforce,” he said.

Weatherford said as some organizations increase paid sick leave, it would increase their benefit costs. But they see it as trading one cost for another.

“(They) don’t mind paying for someone staying home until they are feeling better,” she said. “We can’t afford for someone to come in and infect others.”

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