What Should California Employers Do About Flu Season?

Oct 7 2019 - Health and Safety - Katie Culliton

flu season
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses and can cause mild to severe illness.

Pumpkin spice lattes, sweaters, apples, cold weather, cozy nights inside — it’s that time of year again. Yes, flu season is beginning (did you think I meant autumn?).  

Although you can catch the flu at any time during the year, influenza incidents often begin to increase in October, peaking between December and February. The flu can hit businesses and employees hard but taking steps now can help reduce workers’ exposure to the flu virus.

The flu is unpredictable, as the illness’ timing, severity and length vary from one season to the next. But one thing is certain: The flu is costly for employers. Last season, from October 2018 to May 2019, an estimated 37.4 million to 42.9 million people caught the virus, costing employers an estimated $17 billion in lost productivity, according to Challenger Gray & Christmas.

Employers are obligated to provide a safe and healthy workplace; here are some tips to help reduce the spread of airborne illnesses, like the flu, in your business.

Flu Shots

The best flu prevention is to get a flu vaccination each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC recommends that businesses consider offering free on-site flu vaccinations and provides free posters to employers for promoting the flu shot.

Keep in mind that while employers can encourage and promote a seasonal flu shot, in most circumstances, they cannot make it mandatory for employees.  

Health care industry workers are most likely to face mandatory flu shot policies, but employees may have objections to the flu shot for medical or religious reasons, and employers must accommodate any such exemptions. Over the last few years, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has settled several religious discrimination lawsuits when employers have refused to grant religious-based exemptions from a mandatory flu shot requirement, including:

  • In late 2016, a hospital paid $300,000 to six former employees who weren’t granted religious-based exemptions.
  • In April 2019, another hospital paid $75,000 to an employee fired for refusing a flu shot due to his religious beliefs and had to modify its termination appeal policy.
  • In June 2019, one more hospital paid $74,418 for discriminating against a medical transcriptionist’s religious beliefs. The hospital now permits those with religious objections to wear masks instead of receiving a flu vaccine.

Employers with questions regarding setting up flu vaccination programs should consult legal counsel.

Other Flu Prevention

Businesses can take these steps to prepare and handle flu season:

  • Stop the flu from spreading through your workplace by encouraging employees to stay home when they’re sick.
  • Consider expanding telecommuting and remote work opportunities if you see the virus spread.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands often and stock soap at all shared sinks.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has information for employers to help reduce all workers’ exposure to the seasonal flu virus.

Katie Culliton, Editor, CalChamber

CalChamber members can read two Q&As about the flu in the HR Library: Can I make flu shots mandatory for all employees? and I have an employee who says she does not feel well. What should I do? Not a member? See what CalChamber can do for you.

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