It’s 10 a.m. Your employee hasn’t shown up to work. S/he was supposed to be in by 8:30 a.m. Or maybe your employee is working remotely during the pandemic. The employee missed a scheduled call. You send an email. No response. You call. No response. You’re annoyed. There are deadlines. You can’t have your employees suddenly disappear. The day wears on. You still don’t hear from your employee. You now have a write-up waiting for your employee whenever s/he decides to put in an appearance. Another day goes by. That’s it. As far as you’re concerned this is job abandonment and you act accordingly. Then the next day you do hear from a relative of the employee and you inform the relative that: a) your call-in policy requires the employee, not a relative, to call out and b) s/he need not bother coming back to work–and you’re threatened with a wrongful termination suit. Read on for the missing pieces, and for some best practices as to how to deal with this type of scenario… Even though I am self-employed, I’m going to use a personal experience as an example and then we’ll go from there.
Exactly one week ago, I started my day the way I would almost any Monday. I had planned to call my mother in the afternoon, because less than a week prior, her significant other passed away and it was to be her first day by herself. Little did I know that I would end up unable to make that call. I was in front of my computer screen, literally minding my own business. It was slightly after 11 a.m. Suddenly everything around me started spinning. I thought maybe I needed to get examined for a new contact lens prescription. I took out my lenses, put on my glasses, and resolved to call for an appointment later in the day. It didn’t help. I became even dizzier.
Like many people these days I have been working from home. I figured I’d lie down for a bit and wait for it to pass. Then I felt that awful griping in my gut. I made it to the bathroom just in time. My body was intent on expelling everything in any way it could from any opening (I’m trying not to be too graphic). It wasn’t stopping. I managed somehow to grab and drag a pillow back to the bathroom and was lying on the bathroom floor and I soon got to the point where I couldn’t even get to the toilet. Even opening my eyes caused severe dizziness and nausea. Initially, I thought it was a silent migraine (where you get all the symptoms except for a headache, which has happened with me before.) This would continue for hours.
I could hear my phone ringing, but at that point, I wasn’t sure where it was, and I couldn’t even try to reach for it. I knew at some point my mother would call, and if I couldn’t get to the phone she’d be frantic–but I couldn’t even try to have a conversation. In my faith, you’re not supposed to pray in a bathroom, but there was no help for it. “Please G-d, not now, not like this”. I was thinking of my elderly mother, who had just lost her significant other. I was thinking of my kids. “Please G-d, help me”. I couldn’t get to a sink to get water, and I knew it wouldn’t stay down in any case. Throughout the day, I heard the phone ring. I tried to lift my head and the world spun and my belly clenched again and again–and I was a mess.
Finally, I heard my bell ring. Come you-know-what-or high water I had to get over there. I slid on my belly, moaning all the way there. I called out. It was the police, coming to check on me. My son had called. Did I want to go to the ER? I told the police I was having a bad migraine (because that’s what I still thought). I told him I didn’t want to get COVID. “I’m too young to die,” I said. I slid on my belly back to the bathroom. My phone rang, only now I could see where it was. It was my mother. I answered, “Hi, I’m sorry, I don’t feel good”. I managed to get out what was happening. I asked her what time it was. “9 o’clock,” she said. OMG. I had been on my bathroom floor for almost 10 hours. From her house phone, she called my son. I had quite forgotten that during his gap year abroad he had had EMT training. He headed right over to me. When he arrived, he took one look at me and wrapped me in a blanket, and elevated my head and my feet. In a matter of hours, I had become severely dehydrated. I was going into shock. Over a period of about 2 hours, he spoonfed me chicken broth. Despite waves of nausea I managed to keep it down. I am now, almost fully recovered, though still feeling somewhat rung out. I am exceedingly lucky — and grateful. I am told I had a close call.
What if this was one of your employees? What would you do? What could you do? Here are some possibilities:
- Ask yourself a few questions: Is it typical for this employee not to answer calls, not to be in contact? Does the employee live alone? I am, thank G-d, very vigilant about my health and am fairly healthy. No one expects me to get sick. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen though. Assume nothing.
- Do you have call-out procedures? It might be time to put some together or review them. If you hear from someone other than the employee, you might have to accept that communication as a call-out. In a situation like the one I experienced, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to call out while the crisis itself was happening. Penalizing an employee in this type of situation might violate FMLA, ADA or similar state or local laws.
- Encourage anyone in this situation to get medical help. Again, I was terrified of being in a hospital and getting COVID. Be understanding if you encounter someone with a similar fear. Frankly, had I not managed to keep that chicken broth down, I would have nonetheless ended up in the ER.
- Allow the employee time for physical recovery. Review your policies and review your obligations under FMLA, ADA, or applicable State/local laws, including paid sick leave laws.
- Don’t forget the mental health component. I admit it. I’m having a bit of a trauma reaction. I am seeking some help with that. Encourage any employee in a similar situation to do the same. If your company has an EAP, encourage your employee to use it.
- Don’t forget the 4 most important words to ask your employee “How can I help?”– and of course, consult your friendly local employment counsel.
Let’s work toward making employee wellness a priority in 2021. Seriously, do we really have a choice?
Watch the latest video clip in my series, “Ask the Employer’s Lawyer: My Employee Has Exhausted All Her FMLA Leave Time. What do I do?
Watch my television interview on Stop My Crisis with Vivian Gaspar.
Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
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