January 22, 2021

The Future of Leave

by Catherine F. Burgett, Esq., Frost Brown Todd

On Jan. 1, 2020, employees’ leave banks re-filled and people began planning their annual vacations. Very few anticipated what a game-changer COVID-19 would be when it came to employer-provided leave. Within months, businesses were shuttered, employees worked remotely and people began to eye anyone with a cough rather suspiciously.

Gone were the days when someone toughing it out and coming to work sick was something to be applauded. Now that the federal COVID-19 leave entitlements have expired and COVID-19 has settled in for the winter, employers may be thinking about changing their leave policies. If so, there are some things to keep in mind:

Consider the impact of remote work. Employees who work from home may not need sick leave the same way as when they were coming to the office. Employers should decide in advance what level of productivity will be required by employees. If an ill employee is unable to perform as required, that day should be classified as a sick day and no work should be performed. If, however, the employee is able to work – and wants to do so – having employees working remotely may decrease the amount of sick leave taken. The keys to a successful remote work policy are to communicate expectations in advance and to hold people accountable to those expectations. Wary employers will pay particular attention to wage and hour laws regarding paying hourly employees for all hours worked and deducting wages from salaried exempt employees.

Design policies to keep ill employees home. While no one has ever enjoyed working with a sick co-worker, the optics are worse now than they’ve been for over a century. For employees who physically report to work, consider drafting leave policies to incentive ill employees to stay home. That could take the form of a certain amount of “penalty-free” leave, paid leave or a tiered system where employees are entitled to a specified benefit for more serious health concerns or illness that are considered especially contagious.

Keep your eye on the productivity ball. Many employers focus heavily on what an employee does while working remotely or how often an employee is out of the office. In the time of COVID-19 (coupled with the ever-increasing push to find work-life balance), employers may be better served to shift focus from traditional hallmarks of performance, like compulsory attendance, and instead focus on productivity, efficiency, and the achievement of specified goals. While there are some industries where compulsory attendance defines performance (e.g., manufacturing, healthcare and retail), there are others that could shift to evaluating an employee’s output versus simply time put in.

Plan for the future. COVID-19 has given employers an opportunity to reimagine the workplace. Not only will the debate about mandatory paid leave continue at all levels of government, but employees will increasingly be seeking a different complement of benefits when evaluating job offers. Options for remote work, paid-time-off banks and flexible scheduling are likely to become expected by future job seekers.


Burgett
COVID-19 has given employers an opportunity to reimagine the workplace. Not only will the debate about mandatory paid leave continue at all levels of government, but employees will increasingly be seeking a different complement of benefits when evaluating job offers.