How to respond to COVID-19 or flu in the workplace?

Q: I am a manager of an office north of Boston.  We have been doing a good job managing through the pandemic.  As winter rolls around, I am worried about cold and flu season.  Every year, we have someone that comes in with a cough, sneezing, etc.  Now we are all extra nervous.  I can’t tell whether someone has COVID, the flu, a bad cold, etc.  How should I respond?

A: Your question is timely and likely a concern shared by many business leaders across the US!  I am pleased that you feel like you have been able to effectively manage your business throughout this pandemic.

I consulted Jeffrey A. Dretler, Partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Rubin and Rudman LLP to share his expertise as he is providing counsel to a wide range of clients also struggling with these challenges.

Dretler advises, “The best practice for businesses is to continue to follow the CDC’s interim guidance on preventing workplace exposures to coronavirus which includes, among other things: (1) actively encouraging sick employees (whether sick from COVID-19 or otherwise) to stay home; (2) instructing employees that any individuals with COVID-19 symptoms must notify their supervisors, remain home, and follow CDC-recommended steps; and (3) requiring employees with family members who have contracted COVID-19 to notify their supervisor and follow CDC-recommended precautions.”

Attorney Dretler and I both share your concern, specifically that many symptoms of COVID-19 and flu overlap, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the two and may be the source of concern and anxiety in the workplace.  Some of the common symptoms of both illnesses include: fever, chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or aches, headache, vomiting or diarrhea. According to the CDC, one symptom of COVID-19 that’s not usually present with flu is a new loss of taste or smell. If an employee presents with symptoms that are consistent with both COVID-19 and the flu, the most conservative approach would be to treat the symptoms as if they are COVID-19 symptoms unless and until you can determine otherwise. That being said, not every employee who sneezes in the office or complains of a headache should be regarded as presenting with COVID-19. In such a circumstance, you may wish to talk with the employee to determine whether the employee or you think it prudent for the employee to leave the office, go home and monitor the symptoms to determine if it is safe to return to the office the next day.  Most companies would send an employee home if the employee presents flu-like symptoms, as the flu can be contagious.

Another way to reduce the chances that your employees will present with flu symptoms which could be mistaken for COVID-19 symptoms is to recommend (but not require) that employees get a flu shot. CDC research estimates that the flu vaccine usually reduces the risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent in the overall population. You could make arrangements for a health care professional to offer flu shots at your business or simply provide information to employees on where they may easily obtain them (many pharmacies offer them). While there is no perfect solution to the issue you raise, with continued vigilance and adherence to the CDC guidance, you should be able to navigate flu season in your workplace as well as you have the pandemic to date.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.