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Stepping up your absence management

Jason Cole //November 20, 2014//

Stepping up your absence management

Jason Cole //November 20, 2014//

With unemployment under five percent in Colorado, it’s harder than ever to find a replacement when someone on your team can’t work, so every company has to be prepared to handle employee absences effectively, efficiently and legally.

Whether you’re running a small company that’s dealing with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act for the first time or handling absences for a multinational corporation with employees in all 50 states, you need to be aware of your obligations under the law and ready to deal with a variety of complex situations.  Helping employees deal with injury and loss and then helping them get back to work quickly and safely isn’t an easy job, but it’s one worth doing and worth doing well.

Let’s look at a seasonally appropriate example.  You run a small chain of ski shops.  On Monday morning, Tommy comes in on crutches with his leg in a cast.  He almost nailed that 720 up at Keystone, but came down a little short on the landing.  Since he mainly works in the back room stocking inventory, he needs to be on his feet all day to do his job, so you have a problem.  Tommy’s doctor says it could be two to three months before he can safely stand on it all day.  What do you do?

What if he is part-time or seasonal help?  What if your company has a short-term disability plan?  What if, instead of missing the 720, Tommy threw out his back while shoveling the walk in front of the store?  What if Tommy always got suspicious migraines on days when Winter Park reported lots of fresh powder?  Those answers aren’t so simple, and they change depending upon a variety of factors, like what kind of work you do, where you’re located and your tolerance for risk.

This is where technology can help.  Where a person – at least one without a degree in employment law and plenty of experience – starts to drown in the details, a computer program can shine.  There are a variety of tools available for large and small employers, from reference sources to full-blown outsourcing options, to help you navigate the complex world of absence management.  If you feel like your organization is ready for help, here are a few things to consider.

How much are absences costing you?

Employee absences have clear direct costs, whether you’re hiring replacement labor, shifting work to other people or simply letting work go undone while an employee is out, but there are hidden costs as well.  How much time does your company spend managing employee absences?  Is it a full-time job for a person or even a team of people, or do you just let managers “figure it out?”  Has anyone ever been let go due to absenteeism, or do you have some people who should have been let go, but you were afraid you’d be sued?  Have you been sued? (That’s a sure sign you need help, in case you were wondering.) The average employer sees health-related absence claims from 10 percent of their employee base every year, so these costs will only increase as you grow.  It makes sense to manage these costs just like any other hit to your balance sheet.

When looking for expert absence management help, make sure the solution fits the need.  If your workforce is a mix of full-time and part-time or union and non-union employees, or multiple work sites, then you should consider purchasing a tool to help you manage leave requests correctly.  If you have employees in multiple states, you should definitely use software to keep your company compliant with the law in each state, and if you have more than five people dedicated to managing absences you should consider outsourcing the effort to a company that specializes in absence management.

How are you tracking absences?

If, like many employers, you have a handy spreadsheet or stack of file folders to keep track of who’s in and out of work, then it’s time to upgrade.  Labor law is too complicated to relegate to a dusty filing cabinet, and the federal and state documentation requirements are strict.  And we haven’t even talked about the Americans with Disabilities Act or workers’ compensation.  Are you ready for an audit by the Department of Labor?

Look at your spreadsheet: If you had more than 50 non-vacation absences last year among employees, you need a software tool to help you manage them.  However, be sure to look for one that does more than tracks absences – your spreadsheet already did that.  You need a system that guides your decision-making process, walks you through the steps of putting someone out on leave and bringing them back to work, and makes sure that every decision and communication with your employees is legally correct and compliant.

How soon do you want to make a change?

This is a tough question but the rule is clear: If you want to move quickly, then keep it simple.  Don’t use the new software or the new service company as an excuse to introduce eight new company leave plans, and don’t worry about the 10 years of data from old employee absences – at least not if you want to get started quickly with the new tools. 

For clients who want to start quickly, it is recommended to migrate no more than two years’ worth of data from their old systems, and those who really want to get moving should utilize a “clean slate” approach, where any old leaves are ignored and every employee starts fresh in the new system.

While this could leave room for some employees to use more leave time than they are legally entitled to, it also gives your company the benefits of a new system as quickly as possible, which usually more than offsets the cost of any additional leave time.  Leave the old baggage behind if you can, it will just slow you down.

When illness and injury and strike, you need to be ready to help your employees get back to work quickly and safely while protecting your company from legal and financial risk.  Finding the right tools can put that goal within your reach.