Today, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic flu alert to DEFCON 3. Or something. Actually, it's called "Phase 6," WHO's highest pandemic alert and the first called since 1968. (Reuters story here.) Obviously, this is a serious illness worldwide. But to put it in perspective, regular seasonal flu kills about 500,000 people a year worldwide, and 36,000 in the US. By contrast, swine flu has killed 175 worldwide, and 57 in the US.
This isn't the first time that a novel-sounding disease has gotten undue press attention: recall the coverage of SARS in 2003 and avian flu in 2004–06. Both had deaths numbering in the hundreds worldwide, and no American deaths.
But the current swine-flu pandemic has employers concerned. Many employment lawyers have added to the hysteria by flacking doom-filled seminars on emergency preparedness and other pandemic responses.
My response? Get rid of sick days.
Now before you go all "What you talkin' about, Willis?" on me, let me explain.
Having a set number of paid sick days is a nice idea in principle, but it often has the unintended consequence of encouraging sick employees to come into work. Employees who have used up their paid sick days feel pressure to return to the office. Other employees who are hoarding their paid sick days to use up during Spring Training or something also turn into host monkeys when they should have stayed home.
(A few months ago, I talked about a similar syndrome involving so-called "Iron Man" or perfect-attendance awards. See "The Iron Man Award Integrity Act of 2009.")
My solution involves treating employees like adults, a recurring theme on this blog. If employees are sick, send them home. Tell them to stay home until they get better. You'd rather have them play the role of Absent Employees instead of Patients Zero. That's how our firm handles sick time.
Some employers and HR folks (the ones who don't Get It) will whinge: "But what if they take advantage of us and abuse the privilege?"
What if indeed. If you have an employee who would sink so low as to feign illness to steal pay from you, then that person should quickly become an ex-employee. Malingerers tend to be easy to find, and they'll quickly give you reason to axe them. (Natch, do it carefully to avoid the classic bogus disability-discrimination claim.)
As for your grown-up employees, tell them to wash their hands frequently, cover their coughs and sneezes, and stay the hell away from work when they're ill. And pay them.
A few weeks ago, Legal Talk Network interviewed me on a program with the all-too-sexy title, "Compliance in Pandemic Planning." (I pushed for something with "hamthrax," but was overruled. Too soon?) Paul Boynton, LTN's excellent In-House Legal host, did a great job framing the issues around how in-house counsel should approach pandemics. You can check it out here.