Managing COVID-related Absences

By Jodi Schafer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Human Resources Management Services, LLC

Q: I have a small staff and lately there have been grumblings around a few employees who have been out a lot. Some of these days off were planned vacations, but many were unscheduled absences, either directly or indirectly related to COVID. The Delta variant continues to impact community spread, and I don’t want my staff coming to work if they don’t feel well, but even if their symptoms turn out to be something other than COVID, I’m still losing a day while they get tested. On top of that, schools are back to in-person learning and there have already been quarantines due to exposure. The unpredictability of it all is starting to tax my remaining team members and I don’t know what to do.

This is a challenging situation that many practices are dealing with. While you don’t have control over some of the issues you raise, there are some things you can do to minimize the impact of unscheduled COVID-related absences.

Start by assessing your current stance on incentivizing or mandating vaccination in your practice. Data continues to show that even against the current Delta variant the COVID vaccine is highly effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death. This has obvious benefits for both your employees’ wellbeing and the predictability of your staffing. Another benefit of having high vaccination rates among staff is that fully vaccinated staff aren’t subjected to the same quarantine requirements as unvaccinated staff; reducing absences for precautionary reasons.

Unfortunately, being vaccinated isn’t a golden shield when it comes to preventing unscheduled absences during the COVID-era. As mentioned in the question above, childcare issues continue to plague some staff members; especially those with younger children who may be suddenly forced home due to an exposure in the classroom or at daycare. While this cannot always be avoided, it can be planned for to some degree. Encourage employees to begin thinking about alternative childcare arrangements now in the event that something like this occurs rather than waiting until it happens to put a plan in place. Likewise, you may be able to plan for the inevitability of a staffing shortage during this time of year by building up a sub/per diem pool or temporarily overstaffing to ensure coverage for situations like this.

Another area that you can exercise some control is tracking the frequency and legitimacy of employee call-ins. Determine if you have employees taking advantage of the current situation and abusing your time off policy by using COVID as a smokescreen to mask an unrelated reason for their absence. This may be difficult to sniff out initially, but if you begin to see a pattern of behavior or you hear other team members question the validity of the employee’s excuse, it’s worth paying attention to. You can ask the employee to produce documentation such as a doctor’s note or the results of a COVID test if you think they are being less than honest with you. It is important to note that if the employee is off for a legitimate COVID-related reason (tested positive, has principal COVID symptoms and/or is required to self-isolate or quarantine) they cannot be discharged, disciplined or otherwise retaliated against for missing work. Doing so would be a violation of state law – Public Act 238, amended by Public Act 339.1 I would also encourage you to monitor vacation requests. If an employee has been out a lot lately, staff may be less willing to cover for an additional vacation request from that same employee. As the saying goes, ‘timing is everything’. Just because a vacation request is made, doesn’t mean you have to approve it.

Finally, you might consider upping the level of appreciation for the team members who step in to cover for these unscheduled absences. While you can’t fully prevent these kinds of staffing disruptions from occurring, you can make the situation less frustrating for your remaining staff by rewarding them for their additional efforts. Consider financial rewards like a bonus or adding time to their vacation bank for use at a later date or a gift certificate to their favorite place as a way of saying thank you. It’s amazing how far staff are willing to go for you and for each other when they feel like their efforts are recognized and appreciated.

Finally, I encourage you to keep the lines of communication open with your team. Let them know where your struggles are and ask for their help. They may have additional ideas on this topic that I haven’t thought to address. Getting team buy-in will also encourage staff to be more cognizant of their own use of unscheduled time off in the coming weeks and months.