tl;dr: Many of my coworkers come to work even when sick (coughing, sneezing, sniffling), some seriously; our employer does not send them home. Moreover, I have two young children at home, we decided not to vaccinate them, there have been confirmed cases of whooping-cough in the area, and two people in my family have died from it in my parents' generation. My question is about suggesting an accommodation to this, i.e. take PTO or work odd hours 3AM-1PM, instead of 8AM-6PM. Our employer nominally allows flex time.
- We have unlimited sick time, and as long as it does not appear to be abused no questions are asked. The decision to use it or to stay home is left entirely up to the individual.
For brief, see first paragraph of "Summary" section below.
I have asked a similar question to this over at StackExchange's Law site, but here I am interested specifically in the business etiquette, accepted practice, workplace point of view.
The situation at work
Many people respond to our sick time policies by using less sick time than they otherwise would, coming in as long as they are physically capable of working. One guy in particular comes in sounding like he is in his death throes, and people repeatedly ask him if he needs an ambulance and they check on him when he's not making noise to make sure he is still alive (no joke). That extreme is not at stake for the specific incident prompting this question, but multiple people (very close to me) are having occasional uncontrollable coughing/sneezing fits.
I went home early because of someone who works in very close proximity to my desk was coughing and sneezing. I work in an open area with aisles of cubicles. Two different uncommon diseases, one of them a rare and highly contagious disease spread by coughing, was in the local news last week as having been confirmed present in the city I work in and a nearby city.
Coughing, sneezing, sniffling are symptoms of the more rare/contagious disease I am more concerned about, and many people near me at work are coughing, sneezing and sniffling, some of them with short, uncontrollable cough/sneeze fits. Obviously people could just have allergies and a common cold instead, but to be safe you cannot assume that they do not have a more serious disease that is known to be currently present in the area. I know the probability is less than 50% they have the specific thing I'm concerned about, but the probability is still high enough that I am very concerned.
I talked to my lead engineer to explain before I left, then sent an email to him and my manager to let them know I was leaving early and that for the following days this week would be coming in to the office during off hours to work in the absence of the coughing and sneezing.
When others are sick at my workplace, assuming the situation is worse than just "some people in the area might have a cold" (in my case much worse), is it normal for the healthy people to request accommodations and for the employer to accommodate? Is it considered unprofessional for one side or the other? What is the general expectation?
I am asking from the point of view of the United States, as I am working in New York.
From what I have been able to find so far in my search, I know that the employer has the right (but is not required) to send sick people home. But I am asking from the point of view of those of us who are healthy and want to remain that way by doing what we can.
Today I check my email to find that my manager's email response to me and the lead engineer I work under started off by asking my lead engineer if he is OK with this and if I would be able to do my job with minimal support during this time.
Obviously, I am annoyed that anyone would even bother to ask others if they are OK with this, as I personally don't think it matters whether anyone else is OK with it or not. I do prefer to give the benefit of the doubt, though, and approach my manager's statement not as one of "should this be allowed," but more of a general "I'm a manager, so I want to be entirely in the loop." Obviously I know how I feel, but for this question I want to know the common and general expectations of others.
Keep in mind that my concern is that the workplace could currently be literally toxic.
Some extra points which are very specific to my personal case
Some of these apply to only some businesses, and some apply only to me specifically. I feel these affect the reasonableness of my request to work odd hours to avoid the sickness:
- The building I work in is always open, and security is always here. There is no cost to company for me to work the off hours I proposed.
- It is not at all uncommon for people to work crazy hours for other reasons, especially for approaching deadlines (ie: work until midnight or later)
- The company claims to be flexible and officially we have "flex time"
- There is a common vaccine for the rare, highly contagious disease, which my baby has not received and I don't think the second-youngest child has either. My main concern is for them.
- At least 2 people in my family have died from this specific disease in my parents' generation; that is less of a concern these days if hospitalized, but obviously that would rather be avoided altogether.
So, for an environment where my temporary absence (either total absence via working from home or using vacation time, or merely working odd hours) has little to no negative impact on the employer, and when I am concerned the workplace is potentially injurious to me (but employer disagrees), is requesting temporary no-cost accommodations unheard of and how is this normally reacted to? What should I be able to reasonably expect?
In my case the accommodations are no-cost, but if you write an answer favorable to my request, you could also consider the general case of this question where others' accommodations might not be no-cost. For example, what if someone reading this next year is in the same situation, except security is necessary but is not present in their building and needs to be brought in special. Or perhaps someone is demanding a very sick and inconsiderate co-worker to be sent home when they are needed. An answer which addresses this in a general way to cover all these other permutations would be excellent but not strictly necessary.
Additions based on answers/comments
Prinz brought up some points to consider in his answer, one of which was:
If you escalate the issue aggressively, you could also accidentally insult your co-workers - implying that they are too "stupid" or "insensitive" to recognize when they are truly sick and should stay home.
I am moving my comment to that and putting it up here:
I used to be that stupid/insensitive person. Work leaves it up to us to decide for ourselves: we have unlimited paid sick time and no questions are asked when it is used. Years ago, I used to come to work as long as I was capable of getting any work done. I got better later on, but there are others here who still do that, some literally come in and sound all day like they are dying (I mean it; people actually check on them time to time to ensure they are safe). I like to be sensitive, but there are limits.
Granted, this time none of the people sound like they are actually dying, but several of them are beyond simple, occasional coughs; some have coughing (or sneezing) fits where they can't stop coughing for half a minute.
Go to your pharmacy and get yourself a face mask and some Purel. [...] leverage your flex-time to be at the office when there are fewer sick people attending
My suggestion: invest in some prophylaxis as I recommended and continue to do your job. Save your PTO for your kids' graduations, recitals, ball games, etc.
This is exactly the type of thing I was trying to do. My specific request was to work earlier. Boss asked for a specific schedule I was suggesting, so I said 3AM-1PM, which is much separated from my usual official schedule of 8AM-6PM.
The mask idea was great, and I decided to do that. Unfortunately, people seem to think that is a worse idea than anything else I have said or done, and some people take offense to that, which I can understand even though I do not agree with the offense.
As for "using my paid time off with the family," my concern was that, if I did nothing, I might have to do exactly that at the hospital.