Thursday, December 3, 2009

Reasonable (and Creative!) Accommodations

As Congress considers H.R.1902, better known as the Healthy Families Act (requiring most companies to provide 7 days of paid sick leave to their employees) I've been thinking a lot about what managers and employers can do to provide a healthy environment; solutions that are creative, reasonable and (mostly) free.

Although this bill (and a similar one introduced by the late Senator Ted Kennedy) came to light when President Obama declared the spread of the H1N1 virus a National Emergency, this issue is as old as the dawn of working motherhood. This week Petula Dvorak detailed many heartbreaking stories of women choosing between sending a sick kid to school and the fear of losing a job in a tough job market.

I have to admit that twice I sent my kids to daycare with a dose of motrin to make a huge meeting when I thought my job was on the line, knowing I'd get a call from the Director when the "motrin rebound" wore off 6 hours later and a fever reemerged. I obviously don't believe that I put my children's health in danger but in that moment I truly believed my job was.

And the reality is that children get sick. A lot. And most daycares and schools require a child to be fever/vomit/diarrhea for 24-48 before they can return and you can return to work. When my twins were younger they invariably got the same illness, usually 2 days apart, meaning that with each illness I was often out for a week. A career trajectory killer in a good market, that puts you right on the line for layoffs when companies are making cuts.

And although I personally would have benefited from paid sick leave, in running a small business I certainly empathize with cash-strapped, recession-beating small business owners that can't make it work. I also recognize that if employers start to get creative, with a little planning and making reasonable accommodations, there are many options between coming in sick (or sending a child to school sick) and staying home.
  • Telecommuting. This is an obvious one for most professionals. Most folks have computers and internet access at home, take advantage of it. Employers can facilitate this by making applications web-based, storing documents online, and providing a laptop that can be used by a pool of employees if someone does not own a computer at home; disinfecting with a Clorox wipe between uses, of course! That $400 hardware outlay will have a positive ROI the first time someone uses it at home rather than infecting your entire office with the stomach flu, wiping out many productive work hours in one fell swoop.
  • Prepare Back Up Work. Think only sales professionals and analysts can work from home? Think again. Most workers have mandatory required training every year, from OSHA safety training for warehouse workers to timecard training for nurses to employment discrimination courses for line managers; most of these courses are online. When a worker must call in sick, for himself or for his child, suggest he use those hours to complete mandatory training that he'd otherwise do on the clock.
  • Split Shifts. Be flexible around core business hours for when your employees come in. Taking into account that this doesn't always work in certain fields like, ironically, medicine, allow employees to come in very early or late so that they can split caregiving with someone else. When the twins went through a few "dark winters" of persistent illnesses, I would often go in and work 6am-12pm, taking only 2 hours of sick leave, and my husband would work 1pm-8pm, taking a sick leave hour on his end. We were still able to be present, help our team members, provide our bosses updates and maintain a client facing position and our little ones didn't spread strep throat to their classes.
  • Weekend Access. Again, I realize this is limited to certain work environments but allowing employers to come in and work a day or two on the weekend (and let's face it, many employees are already doing this in our current layoff environment, often doing the work of two employees and anxious to show an elevated commitment level) to "make up" for a sick day during the week. Again, this costs nothing and prevents a pinkeye-exposed employee from sending a highly contagious itchy eyed child to school and maintains your company's productivity.
  • Lead by Example. As a manager, you lead a team, show some leadership. I realize that your job is also on the line, but if you are responsible for your team or division's P&L you know that the potential lost productivity from a day or two's work out of one worker is nothing compared to wiping out an entire office with a highly contagious disease like H1N1 that is sending 30- and 40-somethings in droves to hospitals with pneumonia and other illnesses that could keep them out for work for up to two weeks. In an economy that's hanging on by it's fingernails, you just can't afford that.

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