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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.

SE:Law question: Is employer legally required to accomodate those who do not want to work near sick coworkers?


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.

My Response

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.

Employer's Response

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.

Summary

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.

Sleddog mentioned:

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.

  • Down-voter; if I can improve my question, I would like to know how. This is something I am very concerned about, since I have had members of my family die from pertussis, so I need to balance my work with my family well being. – Aaron May 23 '17 at 12:39
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    While it is honorable for you to protect your family, it is not your employer's job to accommodate for (you and?) some of your children not being vaccinated. If I were you, I would remove all those personal details and make the question way more general. Meaning: Most of the background seems very unnecessary. – skymningen May 23 '17 at 12:42
  • @skymningen While the detailed information is necessary for an understanding of my case specifically, and without it the answer might not be as applicable to me, I do not disagree with you that a more general question might be better. I will try to improve that by editing any non-generic personal information into a brief format that can be easily skipped. Thank you. – Aaron May 23 '17 at 12:45
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    @Neuromancer The baby I know for sure has not had it. The second youngest I don't think he did; he got a bunch of them, but we opted out of a few, and I think that was one of them. Everyone else in the family has it. My understanding, though, is that with something this contagious I can bring it home to the baby even if I do not get technically infected. – Aaron May 26 '17 at 9:33
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    You refused to vaccinate your children, yet you also say they're your main concern and you're concerned about deaths in prior generations. I don't get that. The whole reason there are vaccinations for infectious, possibly fatal, diseases is because they're... infectious. Presenteeism among sick coworkers is only a secondary issue. Just to point out the obvious: most US schools (preschools/ apartment complexes/ etc) will by law refuse to admit your kids without the vaccinations. So you'll be legally compelled to vaccinate them within a year or two, why not do it sooner? – smci Jan 28 '18 at 17:05
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HEALTHCARE TANGENT, ANSWER BELOW

Pertussis IS whooping cough. Your children should have had 4 DTaP vaccinations by the age 2 and should be immunized anyway. Pediarix and Pentacel vaccinations also cover pertussis immunity. The first DTaP vaccine should be given at 2 months - unless your child is fresh out of the oven (in which case, congratulations!) there is no reason they would not have yet been vaccinated at least once. Unless you had twins, your second youngest should be nearly done their entire CIS suite of vaccines (DTaP, Haemophilus, HepB, Polio, MMR, Pneumococcal, Varicella).

ACTUAL ANSWER

Go to your pharmacy and get yourself a face mask and some Purel. IMO, it's not your employer's responsibility to mitigate your mysophobia. Sick days are for people who are already sick, not for people who fear they may become so. There is nothing impeding you from doing your work, so your employer has no reason to accommodate you. Sending sick employees home may work out as an accommodation to you, but it's really an accommodation for them.

That being said, if management is sensitive to your concerns about picking up something from your sick coworkers, leverage your flex-time to be at the office when there are fewer sick people attending. That will limit your exposure to actively sick people (but not any viruses, which could still linger on unsanitized surfaces).

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.

Is it acceptable? Company culture dependent.

Is it normal? It seems like an unusual request to me.

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If you need accommodation due to personal health issues (immune system compromised etc), most companies would view that as reasonable and HR would likely back you up. Even if this was the case, you should discuss this in advance with your manager so you can work out the best arrangements for both of you.

However, in this particular case, your concerns sound rather excessive. It's far more likely that your coworkers have the common cold than whooping cough (aka pertussis, it's the same thing), which is very rare, particularly in adults; the outbreak you mention has made the news precisely because it's so rare! Even if they did have it, if you yourself have been vaccinated, it's highly unlikely that you would catch it from them; and last but not least, if you did get it, the bug would have to make a final leap from you to your kids. All three factors lining up is pretty unlikely, particularly when compared to the typical way whooping cough spreads directly from child to child in daycare.

I would still advise you to raise your concerns with your manager, but from a company productivity point of view: sick people should be encouraged to rest at home, or at least work from home, so they don't spread their illness to the rest of the company. Even an ordinary flu can be a major drain on productivity if it takes out half the team for a few days.

Last but not least, if you're not vaccinating your kids on purpose and there's whooping cough around, you have only yourself to blame if they do catch it at day care, the playground, the supermarket...

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Business Etiquette: Be Cautious and Polite

It appears that you are making many assumptions about the people around you - assumptions that if wrong - and if you press the issue - may cause you to be viewed as a troublemaker.

You are assuming that the people coming in coughing, sneezing, etc are sick with something contagious . They may just have allergies for example - we are in that season now.

The reaction of your boss - asking the Lead if he was ok with your request - indicates that your boss wants to accommodate your concern - but also does not share your concern - which is why he is asking the lead's opinion.

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.

Therefore, from a business etiquette perspective -- be careful and polite -- and be sure to thank those that are willing to work with you to accommodate your concerns.

  • Thank you for answering. You seem to be assuming that I am assuming that those people have what I am concerned about. I do not assume that they are sick with the diseases I am concerned about. Rather, I am concerned about the possibility. I realize that they probably do not have what I am concerned about, but "probably do not" means < 50%. Since two separate uncommon/rare diseases which are bad enough that almost everyone gets vaccinated against have hit my area, one very contagious, I think anything > 1% is sufficient for concern, and I think that criteria (>1%) has been met. – Aaron May 26 '17 at 9:05
  • Despite how I feel about it, what is more important as far as this question is concerned is how others feel about it, which is what you have provided. Again, thank you. Concerning the "does not share your concern - which is why he is asking the lead;" I get that he does not share the concern, but I think whether he shares the concern is irrelevant for a request like this. If the request is reasonable, isn't it generally accepted that refusal due to disagreement with my reasons makes for a bad boss and that, in such case, the bad etiquette is on him? Might ask this as another Q; it's broad. – Aaron May 26 '17 at 9:16
  • I have edited my question to bring up your good point about insults/sensitivity, crediting you for that bit. – Aaron May 26 '17 at 9:54

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