What's an Employer to Do During a Tripledemic?
Author: Helena Oroz, XpertHR Legal Editor
December 5, 2022
COVID-19 hasn't gone away, but remember when other things made us sick? They're still around, lingering and ready for mingling. 'Tis the season… for a tripledemic.
Medical experts and health officials are worried about this winter's rising flu, COVID-19, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) cases colliding into a so-called "tripledemic."
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Seasonal flu activity is high and continues to increase across the country.
- COVID-19 community transmission levels are substantial or high in more than 80% of the country.
- CDC surveillance has shown an increase in RSV detections and RSV-associated emergency department visits and hospitalizations in multiple US regions, with some regions nearing seasonal peak levels.
Unfortunately, children are among the hardest hit this season for a variety of reasons, including lack of exposure during COVID contributing to more severe illness once kids do get sick, and viruses surging earlier. The current surge in illnesses is even contributing to shortages of over the counter children's cold medications used for symptom relief, as well as certain prescription drugs. All of this contributes to the stress of caring for a sick child, even when moderately ill and recovering at home.
Even normal cold and flu season sets off a certain chain reaction of scrambling: kids are out of childcare or school, parents have to figure out work, and employers have to fill in the gaps. COVID took this scenario to a whole new level. But here we are in the final stretch of 2022, and according to recent US Department of Labor data, absences from work due to childcare issues hit a record high just this past October.
You might think that the past two plus years taught us something about how to plan for illness, absence, and "plan B" a bit better. But the fact of the matter is: employers are still figuring it out (some better than others). COVID's hard lessons, when everyone seemed to be sick, and no one could go to work or school, at times seem easily forgotten now.
While entire school and childcare facilities aren't closing these days, employees caring for kids sick with the flu, COVID, RSV, or something else are feeling the squeeze during this latest surge of sickness. But employers need to keep things going, too.
Obligations and Opportunities
So, what's an employer to do during a tripledemic? Much depends on the details, of course, but these steps are a good place to start.
- Comply with leave laws. An employer, and more specifically those handling absence and leave requests for an employer, should know and understand the state and local leave laws that apply to the organization. When an employee needs time away from work to care for a sick child, employer reps must be able to recognize what's covered under the law to ensure that an employee receives all the time off to which they are entitled. This may include leave under temporary leave laws that sprang up during COVID, as well as permanent paid sick leave laws, family and medical leave laws, and public health emergency leave laws covering vaccination, quarantine, or other specified events. But employers should also not forget about the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which may provide eligible employees with job-protected leave if a child's respiratory illness meets the definition of a serious health condition.
- Follow (or implement) time off policies. An employer may have paid or unpaid sick leave, family and medical leave, or other time off policies that may apply to eligible employees with qualifying child care needs. Employer reps need to know and understand when these policies apply to childcare-related situations, too. Also, if your organization is in a jurisdiction with mandatory leave laws, ensure that the organization's own policies do not conflict with the law's requirements. An employer without such a policy may wish to consider implementing one to address childcare-related needs.
- Consider flexible work. An employer may wish to consider temporary flexible work arrangements (remote work, flexible schedules, shift swapping, etc.), either in conjunction with a leave of absence or after an employee has exhausted their available leave time. Be mindful, however, of how you handle these requests and avoid discriminatory treatment (e.g., denying an older employee unpaid leave or the opportunity to work remotely while allowing younger parents to do so; or treating a childcare-related accommodation or leave request differently based on an employee's gender). Administered appropriately, flexible work can bridge gaps for an employee with temporary childcare challenges while allowing an employer to retain talented and valued employees.
- Start with a conversation. Employers should involve employees in discussions about childcare challenges and possible solutions (and document them).
- Communicate expectations. If flexible work will be part of a childcare challenge solution, an employer should clearly communicate its expectations of the employee during this period. For example, you can use a remote work agreement to memorialize what you expect from the employee in terms of performance, work hours, responsibilities, and timekeeping.
- Accept that separation may occur. Understand that in some situations, employee separation (whether voluntary or based on an employer's business needs) may be unavoidable. For example, an employee may resign if no leave options or remote work options are available.
'Tis the season for empathy and understanding, too. A little grace can go a long way towards helping everyone get through this sanity-stealing season.
This tripledemic may not be the holiday gift anyone wants, but it may provide employers with a lesson worth revisiting: planning for illness and absence, and having a "plan B" is critical, no matter the season.