employee keeps missing work because of possible Covid exposures in their social life

A reader writes:

Is there ever a point where it becomes acceptable to comment on an employee’s personal life/choices during COVID times? To start, our policy is if you have symptoms or have had a possible exposure you have to notify the company and stay home until you have negative test results.

While a handful of people have had colds/allergies/exposures once (all with negative results, thankfully!) since our return to the office in June, we’ve had one person, Sam, who has been out five times because of possible exposure. Each of these exposures have caused Sam to be out of the office for at least two days but up to five while waiting to get a test and negative test results. We’re all starting to feel a little resentful because their absence causes an increase in work for others unexpectedly and for an indeterminate period of time each time. Not to mention, it also affects us because if Sam did test positive, now we all have possible exposures so it puts our lives and our families on hold.

Sam (an okay employee and coworker, not great and not without issues) complies with all office rules, like mask-wearing, and has never said anything about it being a hoax but is obviously putting themselves in a position to get exposed a lot. These have ranged from, “I let my son hang out with his girlfriend during lockdown and their family and they had a positive test result” to “I went to play my contact extracurricular sport and someone on the team got tested positive.”

People are allowed to weigh their own risk vs reward factors and exposures can happen from school, daycare, stores, etc., but five times in four months seems like a lot, yeah?

Our company size means we don’t qualify for the federal COVID sick leave so all time is taken unpaid or using vacation, so it doesn’t seem like a ploy to get some free time off, especially considering we have a generous amount of vacation time. I’m senior on my team so I’ve heard the team, managers, and HR all grumble when Sam calls in … again.

Is there a time when an employer can pull you to the side and say, “Hey. Maybe you should stop going out so much during a pandemic?” Or is there going to be a point during this that someone with copious COVID absences can be treated like any other absentee problem?

Ahhhhh, a good question. And it’s complicated by the fact that you of course don’t want to disincentivize people from voluntarily disclosing possible exposures.

I talked with Jeremy Schneider, an employment attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C. Here’s what he said:

This is a delicate issue. An employee’s illness, suspected illness, and/or the employer’s general duty to protect its employees from harm implicate many legal requirements in a normal year. In a global pandemic, this is taken to an entirely new level. I share your frustration. This is something we have been helping employers deal with since the beginning of the pandemic and it is becoming more and more of an issue now that many employers are (at least partially) bringing employees back onsite….

First, employers should consider communicating with their employees generally about being risk averse in their personal lives so they reduce their exposure to COVID-19 and help keep their colleagues/customers/community healthy. Such a communication could take many forms, but I have helped some clients issue policies, memoranda, or informal announcements in this regard. The message should be that the company and each of its employee are responsible for the health and safety of their colleagues and that the measures we all take will impact the future success of the company. Fostering a sense of community and accountability can go a long way. And while most employees follow the rules when physically at work (including this one), employers should also make clear that refusal to follow the policies you have implemented will not be tolerated. This is also a good opportunity to reiterate that scheduling and coverage disruptions result from repeated unexpected absences. There is a fine line here, though. You do not want to make it appear as though you are discouraging reporting potential exposure. Quite the opposite, you want to strongly encourage and ultimately require timely reporting by your employees.

Second, employers should look into whether their employees have exhausted their available paid leave. It appears that this employee is either taking unpaid leave or using accrued vacation. When an employee exhausts all available leave, the employer should clearly communicate that fact. Employers should also make use of unpaid leave subject to some sort of approval process, even if that process is more form over substance. Again, this is a fine line. There should not be an onerous approval process when an employee is reporting potential exposure because you want them to report it. That said, employees should know that use of unpaid leave is generally something the company frowns upon.

Third, depending on the role, if an employee can work remotely during any exposure period, employers should consider requiring employees to continue working. If the employee’s job generally cannot be performed remotely, get creative and come up with work that they can perform offsite. Again, there is a potential myriad of state/local laws which could impact this course of action, but it can be done.

Fourth, employers can explore this type of behavior as grounds for potential discipline if the employee has exhausted the applicable legally-protected forms of leave (e.g., FFCRA, any analogous state/local leaves, and legally-mandated paid sick leave). Again, this is a fine line with a potentially huge framework of laws that could apply, but it can be done.

I asked Jeremy whether it’s legally permissible (or advisable) for the employer to say to this employee at some point, “Hey, your out-of-work behavior is causing you to miss a lot of work. We do want you to quarantine when you have a possible exposure, but we need you to stop putting yourself in situations where that’s happening so often” … and if so, how do you balance that against the worry that the employee just won’t tell you the next time it happens (and might come into work and potentially expose people)?

Jeremy said:

Right, that is the hard issue. What I typically advise clients is they should work backward from general measures to specific ones. Start with reiterating policies, issuing new guidance, etc. to everyone. … Then, if that does not have the desired outcome with a particular employee, a one on one conversation can be appropriate if handled in the right way. In any such conversation, I would focus on the fact that the company is responsible for ensuring the safety of its employees, but that the company also depends on its employees to behave responsibly and limit the potential impact their behavior has on the workplace. If one of my clients got to a point where you are seriously considering taking employment action, or even threatening employment action, I would work with them to ensure we frame that conversation in the best possible way.

So basically, there’s likely a way to have that conversation, but you need to be careful about how you do it so you don’t violate the law, and you should get guidance from an employment attorney before you proceed.

(About the specific laws that could be in play, Jeremy says, “There are a number of laws potentially in play, including the ADA. The FMLA could also be implicated because reprimanding an employee for taking time off to get tested, especially if the test comes back positive, could arguably be FMLA interference or retaliation. Of course, many states and localities also have their own laws which could apply.”)

{ 387 comments… read them below }

  1. AutoEngineer57*

    Wow, a fantastic answer!

    Thank you Jeremy for your very clear and well thought out response. I agree, it’s definitely a fine line to walk.

    1. ASDFGHJ*

      Honestly, the two examples the LW gave of how the employee was potentially exposed don’t seem terribly egregious. Letting your son hang out with his girlfriend and playing a (hopefully outdoor) contact sport aren’t great, but don’t approach the level of recklessness of, like, partying indoors or refusing to wear a mask. Maybe his other excuses were worse, but if they were similar, I think as his employer/supervisor you have to chalk these up to bad luck that many of his contacts have tested positive, not irresponsible behavior on his part. Especially because, as Alison and Jeremy correctly emphasize, the worst thing you can do here is discourage him or other employees from disclosing their exposures. The risk associated with that dwarfs the impact of his absences on the business.

      1. .Sam.*

        *Five* times is not bad luck – it’s ignoring clear signs that you’re not being careful enough. Obviously I would feel differently if they were essential workers and the possible exposures were coming from that, but these examples were fully avoidable. That many people in their circle testing positive makes me think they’re in a hot spot area and/or Sam’s friends and family are all pretty casual about quarantining, even if they’re not being completely reckless. I’m in an area that merited caution, and I’ve seen people socially, in person, maybe half a dozen times since March. Those meet-ups were one-on-one, outside, and masked. If I was restricting myself in that way and my coworker kept dumping work on me because they and their friends were making only a half-hearted effort at quarantining, I admit I would be incredibly resentful. Sam should at least be working from home when this happens.

        1. RecoveringSWO*

          I disagree about both examples being fully avoidable. If Sam’s son is old enough to have a girlfriend, he’s old enough to sneak out of the house to see his girlfriend. I read a very heartbreaking article about a high risk Mom who couldn’t stop her teenager from breaking quarantine. I don’t see an Employer having standing to police the son’s activities here. The contact sport on the other hand…

          1. Amethystmoon*

            I’m surprised the sport is still going on. I suppose it depends upon where one lives. Our professional sports teams have been no fans allowed.

            1. Heather*

              If professional sports are being played, then what’s to stop 5-10 people getting together in a park and playing the same sport?

              1. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

                The strict testing and quarantine regime that professional sports leagues have the resources to implement. I doubt a neighborhood team or Little League league can test every player and coach before each practice and game.

            2. generic_username*

              The sporting fields near my house have been getting a shocking amount of use lately. There are two softball fields, two soccer fields, four basketball courts, and four tennis courts… On any given week night, about 50-75% of those courts/fields are being used for team sports (all ages from young children to adult teams)

          2. tommy*

            “I let my son hang out with his girlfriend during lockdown”

            he didn’t sneak. he had permission from sam.

            1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              What RecoveringSWO means is that even if Sam didn’t give his son permission to see his GF, the son could have snuck out to see her anyway.

      2. quill*

        Neither individual situation was too strange but the guy is eating up potential exposure opportunities like they’re skittles. Six feet, mask, and being outdoors aren’t some sort of “pick any card for protection” setup, they’re “do as many of these as possible” precautions for necessary activities.

        Overall though the validity of each exposure isn’t relevant, it’s the fact that if they returned to the office in June he’s had more than one potential exposure per month. If he’d had to quarantine or isolate two full weeks each time, he would have been available for work only half of the time since then.

        LW: is there anything, really anything, that can be dedicated for work from home in these positions? Because Sam is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential exposures if your location is seeing a spike in cases.

    2. Not A Girl Boss*

      What about incentivizing people who *aren’t* putting themselves at risk? My company has started offering 1 extra vacation day for each month without a COVID related absence. I kind of view it as a “2020 sucks, thanks for doing your part” bonus.

      I really think we just have to stay as far away from the encouraging-people-to-hide-exposures line as possible. In the grand scheme of things, a few unfair days off is not nearly as bad as a preventable outbreak.

      1. AGirlHasNoScreenname*

        Ehhhh, that might still encourage people not to report and to come in sick when they’ve been exposed. I also see that as potentially punishing people for things they can’t control (like if another member of the household has to work in a higher-risk, public facing job.)

        1. Not A Girl Boss*

          But I think it works because everyone gets the days off either way (our company is giving unlimited paid sick leave this year). Its just that people who didn’t have an exposure *also* get time off. It levels the playing field a bit more. In my experience, it helped some with the resentment about having to constantly cover for people who are out sick.

          Obviously there is not going to ever be a completely equitable solution. But I think its a good idea to err on the side of “unearned reward” than “unearned punishment.” I’d actually typed then deleted as part of my original response:
          Honestly, some people just have generally COVID-riskier lives than others (eg, I have to travel for work, most local towns have kids back in school, etc). I don’t really think its fair to punish people because their calculated risk didn’t pay out as well as someone else’s. But I do think you can try to help positively incentivize people who are feeling torn about an unnecessary risk. My husband has been so burned out by coworkers taking time off at his expense because of their risky behavior, that he’s (jokingly) said he should invent a fake exposure just to get some time off.

          1. littledoctor*

            Sure, but there’s a huge difference between a vacation day and being stuck at home waiting to find out whether you have COVID.

      2. CommanderBanana*

        Ehh, I’m not a fan. People who can minimize COVID risk already seem to be pretty privileged – being able to WFH, not having a family member in a front-facing job, many of which are underpaid, not having a child, etc. And, I would think that policies that discourage people from taking time off for being sick are not a great idea during a pandemic that represents with symptoms that can be mild or mimic other common illnesses. I would think VERY carefully before I put a policy in place that rewarded people for not missing work at at time when it’s really, really important that people take staying home when sick seriously!

      3. Hoya Lawya*

        What about incentivizing people who *aren’t* putting themselves at risk? My company has started offering 1 extra vacation day for each month without a COVID related absence.

        That’s a terrible, terrible policy. All it’s going to do is incentivize anyone who is asymptomatic, or who thinks they have a cold but aren’t sure, to come to the office.

        1. AnonNurse*

          I think it depends on what other policies are in place. If they have paid leave for exposures, then I actually like the policy. We’ve had multiple people who had to be off due to exposure, positive results, or having symptoms and awaiting testing results. They were fully paid and never had to worry about using their own PTO for those purposes. The rest of us that haven’t had to use that benefit sometimes joke we feel some symptoms coming on because we need a day off (I assure you, none of us would do that but when you’re ridiculously busy, sometimes you have to laugh to get through the day). Getting an extra day off for every month we are able to work without an absence would be so appreciated and would absolutely continue to keep us engaged and prevent burnout. Just a thought from the frontline.

          1. littledoctor*

            Okay, but there’s a MASSIVE difference between the experience of having a vacation day and the experience of spending a day or two at home awaiting COVID test results. People who’ve been exposed to COVID or who’ve been sick are just as much at risk of being burned out as people who’ve been lucky enough to avoid exposure or COVID-related symptoms. Everyone deserves an extra vacation day, not just people who’ve been able to avoid exposure.

      4. ...*

        That is a terrible policy! My mom was exposed to Covid because she helped her neighbor after her neighbor had a stroke and a serious fall. She should definitely be punished for that! (sarcasm)

      5. June*

        My high school had a policy that was pretty much what you’re suggesting, except instead of vacation days, it was exemptions from finals. If you had a decent grade in a class, and if you had 3 or fewer absences that semester, you didn’t have to take the final.

        It was supposed to keep attendance up. It didn’t, and it was an unmitigated disaster that everyone but the administrators could clearly see. Bleary-eyed, sick teenagers showed up on day 4 of whatever illness they had, on the regular, just so they could avoid taking their finals. And proceeded to give what they had to everyone else around them.

        Bottom line is, rewarding the “healthy/unexposed” people just creates a perverse incentive for the “sick/exposed” people to act like they’re not. And undermines the very goals such a program is trying to promote.

      6. Avasarala*

        I think fundamentally, we should not reward or punish anyone for their exposure. Because exposure is not something that is entirely in anyone’s control, so contracting COVID/not contracting it/contracting it but asymptomatically so you never notice is not necessarily the result of any individual’s effort/skills/character/morals. So many risk factors come down to lifestyle elements that we cannot change, who you happen to be around, and the decisions of others.

        I think it’s better that companies reward or recognize the efforts employees are doing to lower their risk as best they can. Rather than basing it on test results, maybe providing a financial allowance to offset WFH setup, or regularly thanking employees for working so hard despite online schooling and pandemic stress, or recognizing people who worked at odd hours to attend a call with another time zone instead of fly there, etc.

    3. Don't be a covidiot*

      I’m a small employer in an essential industry who also has to provide the 2 week Family First Covud leave. At first, my mediocre employees took full advantage of the leave and used it like vacation time. Once I came up with work from home projects for those who were allegedly exposed that problem solved itself. My real potential exposure employees still take needed time off but the slackers would rather do our interesting in-office work than 40 hours of training videos, updating manuals, and other office work.

  2. Jenny*

    Experts recommend a 2 week quarantine after a possible exposure because even with a negative test because your viral load may be undetectable immediately after exposure and you could still have the virus. Also test aren’t not 100% accurate. At my sister’s job (an NYC hospital) if you are exposed you have to take 2 weeks unpaid off, you aren’t allowed to use your vacation. While I think that is problematic for a lot of reasons but a slightly stricter policy may make staff a little more risk adverse.

    1. Stevikay*

      Yes! A single negative test at the beginning of the quarantine period is not enough to guarantee the person doesn’t have it. Anyone who is exposed needs to stay home for the entire two weeks.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        My mom’s company made her work from home until her cough went away or subsided considerably (she ended up testing negative for Covid, but was diagnosed with viral bronchitis) – she didn’t go back in until a month later because of that mandate from HR. My brother and his whole family just tested positive for Covid, so there’s no telling how long his company will make him quarantine and work from home, but I imagine it’ll be about the same length of time or longer until he’s allowed to set foot back on campus.

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            Thank you. The little ones (6 and 6 months) seem to be fine – they have the occasional cough and runny nose, but their doctor said their lungs look fine and everything else appeared to be fine as well. My brother says he only has fatigue and his wife body aches, but not much else. So it seems like they got a mild strain.

      2. Eleaner*

        Came here to say this. 95% of cases start showing symptoms by day 14, so picking a day before that* is opening up the company to be liable for those exposures (beyond OSHA recordkeeping). Thank you to one of the Friday threads for referring the John Hopkins free coursera contact tracing course. It helped our company out a ton!

        *In the US, certain industries can skip the 14 day quarantine, but then you have to do serial testing (test every 3 days). I don’t recommend, and the CDC’s explanation of how to do it is Not Great.

    2. Malarkey01*

      If only we had a very public, high profile example of how someone could test negative today but then test positive tomorrow or the day after and in the meanwhile infect more people, and if only we had that over a larger sample size than just one person…..

      1. JessaB*

        Well Ohio’s governor went in reverse of that, had a false positive and then a few days later retested negative. So the tests are notoriously unreliable.

        1. ThatGirl*

          False positives are rare, though certainly possible. The tests are not perfect, but they are helpful. My 41-year-old brother tested positive for about a month — he never felt particularly sick, had a very mild cough at one point. He was likely not contagious after the first week or two, but kept testing positive due to residual virus. It’s still better safe than sorry.

        2. JB (not in Houston)*

          It depends on the test! Some are reasonably accurate. But some of the tests out there surprisingly high likelihood of giving you a false negative, which is frightening–much scarier from a public health perspective than a false positive. Julia Ioffe wrote an article about it for GQ recently that was eyebrow raising.

          1. KaciHall*

            My doctor told me I probably had it,
            that she’d get me a test but that even if it was negative, due to the 30% false negative rate, I probably still had it. But then told me to go to work as soon as I had a negative test and no fever.

            It’s been be six weeks. I still feel like crap, but haven’t had a fever so no reason to get retested. I can’t work from home or wear a mask for most of my work day because I do a lot of phone calls and ‘home internet isn’t secure’.

            Not to mention they didn’t pay me sick days while I was home sick waiting for a test, and I’m getting a wee bit frustrated with my job.

            1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

              Wow. If I were your coworker, I’d be furious at our employers. Requiring you to *not* wear a mask is a whole new level of egregious.

              1. pancakes*

                It’s not nearly as egregious, but I’d be very irritated by their senseless excuses about home internet, too. It’s secure enough for those of us who are lawyers to work from home, and was secure enough to support working from home pre-pandemic as well. VPNs are not new technology.

                1. SimonKitty*

                  The company may have to meet a higher standard of security. For instance, a civilian working for a military department. There are some places that don’t even allow you to take external drives to work or your cell phone is off due to security issues. Working from home is not an option in those cases.

                2. pancakes*

                  Of course, but in those circumstances I’d expect someone describing the scenario to say “we can’t work from home due to the nature of our work,” not “we can’t work from home because home internet ‘isn’t secure.’”

        3. JustaTech*

          Wasn’t that the antigen quick-test that’s less specific (ie, has more false positives) but is done in like 30 minutes and not 3 hours?

        4. quill*

          Generally we prefer false positives when the treatment cost for an asymptomatic positive test is rest and isolate, and the potential cost of false negatives is so high.

      2. Chinook*

        Honestly, look to your northern neighbours. Our Prime Minister had to quarantine in the sprjng when his wife tested positive. He even gave daiky press conferences from outsidr his home. Just last week, 2 opposition leaders came back from quarantine.

        Of course, it helps that our quarantine acts include enforceable fines or jail and the power of law and that our leaders don’t brag about breaking quarantine.

        Heck, if our PM could handle quarantine at the start of the pandemic without exposing anyone else while holding daily briefings about an unknown disease and attend votes remotely, I am thinking any world leader should be able to do the same . He didn’t even use it as an excuse to not pull dirty political tricks as he even tried to pass a bill asking for uncheck power for a year at the same time. Being in quarantine is not enough to stop politics you know how to use a computer!

    3. LGC*

      …I’m not wild about this policy (the unpaid part, not the two weeks), precisely because it’s so strict and punitive. And some people get inadvertently exposed – a friend of mine was potentially exposed when she interviewed for a job recently. (She did things right. Her interviewers…did not.)

      With self-reporting, I think you need to make it as okay to not be okay as possible. I’ve actually dealt with this at my job – where my job asked me about how I was feeling for ten minutes because one day I rated my anxiety as a 6/10 instead of a 5/10 – and the end result is that I’m WAY less likely to tell them how I’m doing. (The 6 came around because that was when the Jacob Blake shooting happened.) They kind of sabotaged themselves in that sense – by being pretty aggressive, they caused me to not want to tell them about things.

      1. Jean*

        IMO it’s pretty normal to not want to give your employer a daily /10 anxiety rating, regardless of how “aggressively” they respond to it. That’s an… unusual practice.

        1. Amethystmoon*

          I would have to lie about such a test. Imho none of their business, but it would be more anxiety inducing to think I could somehow get in trouble for having anxiety.

          1. quill*

            Got blamed by a former boss for having anxiety, lived in that hell, threw out the company t-shirt.

      2. LGC*

        Double answer – it’s part of the daily wellness checks. (The other questions are whether we have symptoms, know if we’ve had contact with infected people, or have left the area recently.) No, I did not design this. Yes, I’m aware this is messed up. Yes, I might have been a bit too nonchalant about it in this comment.

        1. Jean*

          You weren’t too nonchalant about it, it just stuck out as unusual. I know if my employer starting asking us to rate our anxiety level daily, apropos of nothing, I would find it very strange. But it does make somewhat more sense as part of a pandemic related wellness check. Anyway thanks for the response and explanation!

      3. littledoctor*

        Yeah, we need to make sure that having been exposed to or having COVID isn’t treated as or viewed as a sign of moral deficiency. The way some people talk about people who’ve been exposed to COVID reminds me a lot of the stigma surrounding HIV–the idea of good and acceptable patients vs. unacceptable ones, the good morally sound exposures vs. the bad ones that make you a bad person, etc. Stigma against being HIV+ has been a huge contributer to the spread of HIV, because people are much less likely to be tested even when they suspect they have it–they don’t want to know because they don’t want to experience stigma and criminalisation. Stigmatising people who’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus will have the same disastrous implications for public health.

    4. ...*

      Wow, all I can think its that this will make healthcare workers who work with the sick and vulnerable lie and cover up their covid exposures. 2 weeks without pay = no food for a lot of people. They’re not going to self report their kids gf’s family member had covid and anyone who thinks they would report that is definitely kidding themselves.

      1. paxfelis*

        We live in Texas. FIL lives in Georgia. Uncle lives in Texas, about five hours away from us. FIL has just attempted to order us to come visit him and uncle. My husband was actually planning on doing it (read: couldn’t see a way to say no and have it be listened to) until I pointed out that that meant I’d have to leave before husband and kids got back, and stay away for two weeks. And that’s best-case scenario.

        We may have a family feud on our hands, because we can’t afford for me to be out of work for two weeks. FIL doesn’t see how going on a multi-state drive to visit with family and returning home to MIL who is JUST OUT OF CHEMO is unreasonable or irrational.

        The only part of a possible family feud that I regret is that MIL is going to hear about it in detail and at great length.

        1. Epiphyta*

          Hey, today was my BIL’s funeral, and we watched a livestream of it rather than traveling halfway across the country. Anybody upset about that has been given the “We can live with your disappointment, but couldn’t live with the possibility of asymptomatically giving anyone exposure to the virus” speech. They’re upset? Well, hopefully at the end of this they’re all alive to be upset.

              1. Arvolin*

                Saturday before last, I was best man at a wedding. My wife, a bridesmaid, was holding the phone that the bride’s parents were watching the ceremony on, and the groom’s grandmother was watching from a distance. There were seven of us standing up (wearing masks, outside, and keeping some distance) for the ceremony, and two people in the seats. The important thing is that we got them married.

            1. L*

              I’ve been to four live-streamed weddings since March. Granted, it is just the ceremony and some of the reception but it has been great. Also because so many more people can join in.

        2. ...*

          Ugh, that sounds awful. So very sorry you are dealing with that! You are trying to be responsible here which should be applauded. I think the guy in this case is trying to be responsible too b reporting and not going in.

  3. Matt*

    Its hard for me not to think that this person is taking advantage of the situation.

    We have had issues with employees lying about covid contacts to take advantage of my companies generous covid policies. I would be suspicious that this person was lying to get out of work.

    1. Minocho*

      And this person may be, but there are other factors at play for people. A coworker of mine is married to a school nurse, and school is back in session. The exposure risk for my coworker and their family is very high, and there is only so much they can do to limit it. I see both sides of the argument in so many cases.

      1. Thankful for AAM*

        But that is work related exposure. In this case, the employee is choosing to expose himself in his social life.

        1. Arvolin*

          That’s work-related exposure for the coworker’s spouse, not the coworker. Now, suppose it was not a marriage (which has legal implications) but a live-in friend of the appropriate sex situation. Telling the coworker to stay safe would imply leaving the significant other for months (at least) and finding other housing, which doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

          1. Thankful for AAM*

            I don’t think you can police behavior at home (maybe if it violates local laws about COVID). But I also think there is a big difference between my employee/coworker keeps inconveniencing everyone by quarantining because he chooses to expose himself and because his spouse has a job that exposes him.
            And I think they each require different responses. If it is because of the spouses’s work, I’d remind other employees of all the things we are doing at work to keep us safe. If it is because he chooses to expose himself, I’d do what Alison suggested.

              1. Siege*

                I’m hoping it was just a real weird way to say partner/significant other, which would not have had the homophobic connotations.

                1. Admin of sys*

                  Possibly, but I still don’t see how it matters? If you have a roommate, regardless of whether or not you are sleeping with them, their behavior effects you.

        2. littledoctor*

          Many people will face more barriers than others in avoiding COVID exposures. For example, for a lot of people who have significant psychological problems and who are at risk of suicide, healthy social contacts can genuinely mean the difference between life and death. Someone who’s suicidally depressed might find it to be dangerous for them not to continue participating in the normal social activities of their life, like playing sports with acquaintances.

          Stigmatising people who’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus, and acting as though some exposures are more morally acceptable than others, does nothing for public health. This employee is clearly taking things seriously–he’s risking the stigma by consistently reporting any possible exposure. I would bet money that there are other people in the office who’ve had similar exposures but who have not chosen to disclose them.

    2. Grits McGee*

      It’s certainly possible, but it doesn’t seem like a great plan if Sam is having to use his own PTO or take unpaid leave every time he needs to isolate. OP’s workplace doesn’t appear to have any particularly generous COVID programs in place.

    3. Harvey 6'3.5"*

      Maybe, but remember that for every bell curve, there are standard deviations. I am not a statistician, but if the ordinary employee has 0 or 1 covid events, in a moderate sized organization, it isn’t surprising that one of the employees has multiple events. And he hasn’t actually gotten covid, just been exposed, showing that he is probably being at least a little careful. So I would be hesitant to assume he is lying, particularly since he is taking leave anyway, which he presumably could have scheduled if he wanted to.

      1. Horse Girl*

        I agree with Harvey. I’m sure it’s frustrating that Sam has had multiple instances where they have to miss work because of a possible exposure, but if your team/company isn’t expecting to be at least a LITTLE BIT inconvenienced by this pandemic, you’re not being realistic.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Five avoidable absences in four months seems like more than a little bit, though, and Sam’s absences will make it harder for the company to absorb absences caused by truly accidental/unavoidable exposure.

    4. Homebody*

      Honestly I think this is the exact reason why OP’s company should reach out to a lawyer, so they can do due diligence by making sure they’re being reasonable about policies while also preventing employees from taking advantage of the situation.

      Also, it really sucks when one or two people take advantage of things and ruin benefits for everyone else. You’d think that behavior would stop after high school, but here we are!

    5. fposte*

      Thing is, even if that’s true, the OP’s employer may be legally limited in what they can do (or it might be legally advisable for the employer to limit what they do, even if the law isn’t clear yet). Letting a few fakers get through is sometimes the price of important accommodation.

      1. Ominous Adversary*

        I wonder if anyone has flat out asked him why he continues to do things like play contact sports in the middle of a pandemic, knowing that he will have to quarantine afterward.

        1. Insert Clever Name Here*

          But he doesn’t know he’ll have to quarantine after playing contact sports. Yes, it involves a higher risk than going running by yourself, but it’s not an absolute given that he’ll be exposed. (And yes, I recognize that he was exposed, but it wasn’t a guarantee it would happen)

    6. Anya Last Nerve*

      Yes, my very large national employer experienced this – in the beginning, anyone who could possibly have symptoms of COVID or exposure got 14 additional days of PTO. But it was back when testing was hard to come by so after people were having suspected COVID and taking 2 weeks paid time off multiple times, the rule had to be changed to you get the 14 days if you present a copy of a positive COVID test. Sucks that people taking advantage eroded the benefit.

      1. Arvolin*

        Which also means that, if I’m exposed, I’ve got the choice between going in and potentially infecting people, or staying home and potentially missing two weeks of work. I can infect a lot of people before I test positive. This stuff is tricky.

      2. Sacred Ground*

        Tell them to take off whenever they need if they think they’ve been exposed. And tell them to present a negative test result if they want to come back to work.

    7. ...*

      But they aren’t using any covid policies, just their already allotted PTO time. The company isn’t even eligible for covid act pay.

    8. Momma Bear*

      I would be hard pressed to think that he isn’t taking advantage of the situation and being fairly cavalier about it. Our office requires people to quarantine as necessary, and work from home as permissible. If someone was out of paid leave, then what is the company policy on unpaid leave? That might be something to consider here. There are a lot of reasons someone might need unpaid leave, but it’s usually finite.

    9. Firecat*

      I guess I just don’t see it. There were 2 examples provided, and the day care one is unavoidable. I get people are upset about the contact sport but… asumming this is in America a lot of places are restarting those. 4 exposures in 5 months could be a lot or not. I was exposed 4 times in 1 month at work.

      Personally I don’t see a difference between telling someone:
      You can’t play sports.
      You can’t attend in person religious services
      You cannot have in person family gatherings
      You cannot shop for groceries in person and must use a contactless delivery system
      You may not in person shop at all.
      You can not cohabitate with your adult high risk family (e.g. college student, healthcare worker)

      All of those are oversteps imo. Everyone has their own tolerances and risk measures (I say that as someone who is definitely more risk adverse then the average American. I don’t eat out. wear a mask at all times. Only in person shop for essentials and groceries). I think it’s a bit much for a company who isn’t even paying for this time off to try and dictate their employees after work activities to this degree.

      Frankly in person grocery shopping is everyone’s highest risk activity and we have no way of knowing if we were exposed or not. At least with this sport team they seem to have good testing and contact tracing.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Yeah, I honestly don’t know. You can’t dictate what someone does outside of work, but this is pretty dreadful as well.

        I strongly suspect this is a situation where Sam isn’t allowed to work from home and hence why all of this is a disaster. I have coworkers throwing parties, traveling, etc. but if they get exposed, at least they’re extremely limited as to what other office staff they can infect. I’d be pissed if I had to go see my coworkers in person who threw parties a day or two after they happened for the next five days running.

        If Sam didn’t have to be around coworkers every day, this wouldn’t be an issue or as much of one if they could still work from home.

    10. Amaranth*

      At the very least I hope they are requiring the test results to show that they have been done and are negative. Or can an employer not require proof because its a medical test?

  4. Construction Safety*

    FWIW, we wouldn’t require a quarantine for “my son’s GF’s family member has tested positive”.

    1. ABK*

      Why not? His son was at their house, which is significant exposure. What does count as exposure then?

      1. sunny-dee*

        Degrees of separation. You’re literally saying I met someone who met someone who met someone who has covid.

        1. Caramel & Cheddar*

          Not really? It’s saying “I live with someone who had significant exposure to someone who lives with someone else who had COVID-19.” There’s still degrees of separation, but the exposure isn’t as insignificant as “met” implies.

        2. Ryn*

          That’s called contact tracing and it’s what most other countries have been doing to keep the virus under control.

        3. boo bot*

          I think “met someone who met someone who met someone who has covid” could also just describe a chain of infection? Until everyone in that sentence has quarantined and tested negative, it’s not clear what the exposure is, since the girlfriend’s family member is in fact known to have covid.

          Possible outcomes:
          family member (+) > girlfriend (-) > son (-) > coworker (-)
          family member (+) > girlfriend (+) > son (-) > coworker (-)
          family member (+) > girlfriend (+) > son (+) > coworker (-)
          family member (+) > girlfriend (+) > son (+) > coworker (+)

          The coworker is the farthest away in the chain, but if the girlfriend lives with her family member, the son is her boyfriend, and he lives with the coworker, those are all significant exposures, and it’s not like it becomes less contagious the farther you are from the known source. As Ryn said – it’s contact tracing.

        4. Glitsy Gus*

          I mean, if it’s “My son stayed at a house with his GF, while her dad down the hall had COVID.” That’s really only one degree of separation, since it wasn’t Sam-> son-> GF-> GF’s Dad. It’s Sam -> Son -> GF’s Dad. If GF had been in Sam’s house, which I think is a reasonable assertion, it’s also Sam -> GF -> GF’s dad. I think that warrants caution. Of course, there are always additional factors, but, given the number of people that could be affected I don’t think that would be unreasonable to count as “exposure.”

          If dad doesn’t live there it’s a little different, but the above is how I read it.

        5. Kate H*

          It’s a little tricky to parse but I read it as either:
          A) The son was hanging out with his girlfriend and her family
          B) The son was hanging out with his girlfriend, and she as well as her family members tested positive
          In either case, this could be direct exposure if the son tests positive.

      2. MissGirl*

        Most health policies are direct, close exposure to a positive person. Being around someone who was around someone isn’t usually sufficient.

    2. bubbleon*

      Can I ask why not? Assuming the son has been at the girlfriend’s house or around her during a time when she might be sick, it seems like he could easily bring covid home to Sam.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        This is what happened to my brother. I’m pretty sure he, his wife, and my two young nieces contracted Covid recently when they went to visit his mother-in-law who regularly has people who don’t live with her coming in and out of her house. There’s no telling which of her houseguests infected them.

        1. Tired of Covid*

          It just slays me that folks are visiting like it is still the before times, and not using masks because it’s “family”. The virus doesn’t care who the host is.

          Playing contact sports is a foolish choice, employee is likely a covid denier knowing that doing so would cause him to miss work if any of the players tested positive. Employee wants to continue to live their life without any consideration of the pandemic or impact on his job. So very selfish. Yes, I would ask directly about the sports in particular.

          1. Person from the Resume*

            My city just entered phase 3. It allows people to resume contact sports. I’m not saying it’s a great idea, but if his team is playing, the local government is likely allowing it. How quickly you resume allowed activities depends on how well the government has responded to the pandemic and how seriously you personally take COVID.

          2. Arvolin*

            These are stressful times, and some people don’t handle stress as well as others. For decades, I’ve been balancing what I really should be doing with what might cause enough stress to push me into depression. (Don’t worry about me; I’m good at this, and doing very well since retirement.)

            While there certainly are a lot of selfish and ill-considered actions going around, I’d be reluctant to blame any individual person without knowing more about them.

            1. littledoctor*

              Yeah, like, re: contact sports, healthy social contacts and physical activity can be really vital for people who have, for example, severe depression or schizophrenia. For them, the beneficial impacts of the social contact and the activity have in terms of minimising their risk of psychosis, schizophrenia, etc. can outweigh the potential risks.

          3. Momma Bear*

            It’s been reported that family gatherings have absolutely caused COVID spread. It’s hard to treat your family like plague vectors but….they could be.

          4. Diahann Carroll*

            It just slays me that folks are visiting like it is still the before times, and not using masks because it’s “family”. The virus doesn’t care who the host is.

            Thank you! And what pissed me off even more is his mother-in-law is supposedly a nurse! You would think she of all people would take this seriously, especially when she has her 98 year old mother living with her and her damn grandchildren – one of whom barely has an immune system yet – visiting.

            People need to get it through their heads that this is not the Before Times and given our country’s “leadership,” will never be that way again. Behaviors need to adjust drastically.

            1. Thankful for AAM*

              Friends and I are constantly amazed, in a bad way, at the behavior of medical professionals we know!
              Not all medical professionals, I know, but it is just such a shock when someone who is trained does not seem to know better.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, but policies are generally dependent on “were you exposed to someone who tested positive?”. Right now that’s the girlfriend and *maybe* the son, depending on his contact with the girlfriend’s family member, but it’s not the rest of the son’s family. I’m not encountering situations where the policy asks up the chain farther than that.

          1. Combinatorialist*

            The policy at my work place is “were you or a member of your household exposed to someone who tested positive?”. The general assumption we seem to make is that if anyone in the household has been exposed, the whole household has been exposed.

            1. fposte*

              And if that’s this workplace’s guideline, that’s a different matter (if the son was exposed to the GF’s family member, anyway).

            2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              This is my workplace policy as well – and they specifically include your kids being exposed thru friends or school/daycare. We are a big national employer – but because of loopholes, I don’t think we qualify for the extra 14 days of sick leave.

              However, if telework is possible you are allowed to work from home while waiting for test results or if you test positive and are quarantined at home.

          2. Paulina*

            Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread, as well as delays in testing positive and getting results, means that covid can be two steps ahead before you know it’s there. It’s responsible to count “in regular contact with someone who’s been exposed” as appropriate for testing and quarantine. He seems to be a bit cavalier about his own safety, but I don’t think he’s reaching at straws to get time off or endangering others.

    3. Starfire117*

      Yeah, but the son was hanging out with the girlfriend AND her family, and the family had a positive case, which means the son was around someone who tested positive.

      If it was just that the son was hanging out with the girlfriend, and someone in her family tested positive, I don’t think Sam would have to also be cleared. MAYBE the son, but definitely not Sam.

      1. JSPA*

        Those policies were set in stone when we misunderstood the relative importance of asymptomatic transmission (and for that matter, of R0 vs k, link to follow). And when we expected to have real-time or near-real-time contact tracing, and retroactive tracing, relative to risk.

        The problem is that enough transmission happens before people have even a suspicion they’ve been exposed.

        Sure, if the son had self-isolated just on principle, after visiting the GF’s family, the employee could have avoided contact. But once that’s failed to happen–once son knows he was exposed to Covid, and employee knows he’s been exposed to the son–it’s wise for him to stay home until the son’s test comes back. (The son’s, not his own, as the son is more likely to test positive earlier, as any infection will be more advanced in the son).

          1. Chinook*

            Very informative, even if it does mean that singing in groups is a bad idea for the foreseeable future. (Sigh) I miss live harmonies.

    4. Dave*

      Making a few assumptions, but if the son came in contact with the girlfriend within a few days her testing positive, son should be quarantining I thought. If the son is quarantining because he might have been exposed shouldn’t the rest of the household?
      I know some states and companies are more strict then others and if at all possible the answer is everyone quarantine, but reasonably what is is the employee ‘supposed’ to do in this case?

    5. Ann O'Nemity*

      At most, that’s secondary exposure – you’ve been exposed to someone who has been exposed to someone who has tested positive. My county’s public health department has said that secondary exposures do not require quarantine.

      1. PVR*

        Not necessarily. If the son was at the GF’s house for an extended period of time, say watching a movie in the living room with her family, it’s entirely possible he had direct exposure to the infected person.

        1. Case of the Mondays*

          But there the son is the primary exposed person and the worker in this scenario is only secondarily exposed.

      2. Rose Tyler*

        Same – my son was exposed at school. He had to quarantine, the rest of the family did not. This is per the conversation I had with the contract tracer at the health department. OP’s work should look at what they are considering exposure triggering a need to quarantine, that may solve half this problem.

        1. Person from the Resume*

          But it really depends on how long after exposure you found out. If your son did contract COVID, he could have easily transferred it everyone in his house before he started his personal quarantine.

    6. Brett*

      To put this in perspective, this is the same level of exposure for you if someone in your child’s classroom test positive. In that situation, your child will quarantine and other children and adults at the school who were in close contact (within 6 feet for 15 or more minutes normally) with whoever tested positive. The rest of the school will not quarantine. Your family will not quarantine.

      If a family member of a child in the classroom tests positive, only that child will quarantine. The rest of the children in the classroom, even those who had close contact with the child, will not quarantine.

      1. EvilQueenRegina*

        Same where I live. If Sam’s son was at a school and was exposed via someone in his classroom testing positive, the son would have to self isolate, but Sam is only required to if the son develops symptoms (although he could make his own choice to).

      2. JustaTech*

        Just because I want to be sure I’m understanding the mechanics of this, how does any child younger than say, middle school successfully quarantine away from their family?

        Like, my cousin got COVID at college and he drove himself home and lived alone in the basement and his parents delivered food to the back door and didn’t see him until he was better and tested negative. So I can see how that works for adults/older kids.

        But what about for elementary school kids? Like, they just need more care/supervision than can be done by basically locking them in their bedroom.

        1. Mary Richards*

          Plus, at such a young age, is it even safe, physically or mentally? I can’t imagine the implications.

        2. Brett*

          They don’t quarantine away from their family. But the rest of the family can leave the house, go to work, continue to go to school, etc. until the child who is quarantining shows symptoms or comes back as a positive test. At that point, they have had close exposure to someone who tested positive/showed symptoms (and will be subsequently tested) and have to quarantine as well.

          For your cousin, he actually tested positive. The scenario we are talking about would be like if your cousin’s roommate tested positive.

          1. TTDH*

            I mean… if the kid isn’t away from their family, they aren’t actually being quarantined, they’re just not going back to school.

          2. Librarian1*

            This doesn’t make sense! We know that asymptomatic spread happens, so I don’t see how this helps anything.

          3. Attack Cat*

            I feel like ordering a stamp with the phrase Bad Idea on it and stamping it all over this plan.

        3. fhqwhgads*

          I think the reasoning is not “this toddler stays isolated in the house” (although possibly the toddler might from other children in the house if possible), but rather any adults in the house caring for that toddler who is required to quarantine would not themselves be required to quarantine until/unless the toddler tested positive.

          1. littledoctor*

            Which is a really foolish way to go about things, given how rapidly the virus can asymptomatically spread.

            I really feel that a more comprehensive, enforced policy in terms of avoiding coronavirus spread would help bring America’s numbers to be more in line with the numbers of many other nations that are also grappling with the novel coronavirus.

        4. Rama-lama-ding-dong*

          For example, my kid had to have a COVID test. She had a sore throat and runny nose. I was not required to quarantine while we were waiting for her results. However, once I got the sore throat, then I was required to quarantine until I could get a test. My husband was not required to quarantine through any of this as he was fine.

          We all came back negative. Kids and schools are germ factories and I see many a COVID test in our future.

        5. Greetings from Eastern Bubblonia*

          Here, the parent stays with the kid but isn’t required to do a strict quarantine. If you have a two (or more) parent situation, it’s recommended that one parent stays home from work and with the kid for the 14 days and stays away from the other members of the household. Parent 2 takes care of anyone else who needs it, goes to work, buys groceries etc.

          Note: this is if someone in your child’s class is positive. If your child has symptoms, you call the helpline, get tested if they recommend, and stay home until the negative result comes back and symptoms clear up.

    7. Brett*

      I’ll add that the extracurricular sport example may not be enough to quarantine either. It depends a lot on the sport and the circumstances of who tested.
      Someone in my martial arts dojo could test positive without me being required to quarantine. (Even though it is a contact sport, most training sessions are highly social distanced now and only about 1/10th of the dojo is at any training session.) Someone testing positive on the other team in a hockey, football, or basketball game may not mean I quarantine depending on what respective positions we played, how long the game was, etc. (This becomes even more of an issue, because most sports testing is saliva test, where there is a high false positive rate and subsequent follow up testing is needed.)

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        Right. Even if a sport is “contact” regularly, it might not be contact now. My husband is in a highly competitive contact sport that is still practicing but they are only practicing drills and conditioning, not any of the contact stuff.

    8. anon for this*

      I actually asked this in a letter that got answered here.
      According to proper contract tracing/CDC, Construction Safety is correct, Sam’s “exposure” to the son’s girlfriend does not require Sam to quarantine.
      You quarantine if YOU are exposed to someone who tested positive for 15 minutes or more and withing 6 feet. The girlfriend did not test positive so Sam was not exposed.

      I personally find the secondary exposure to be more a concern than the CDC but that’s my personal feeling. I worked for an entire day or three with a coworker who had a secondary exposure at work. My workplace said, meh.

      It sounds like the OP’s workplace is both more strict than the CDC and strangely unwilling to allow WFH. As much as I wish my workplace was more strict than the CDC, it does not work unless you also allow WFH.

      1. littledoctor*

        Yeah, biology is not impacted by what policies say or what governments recommend. The virus will do what it will do whether it’s legal or not.

    9. quill*

      I read that one as “exposed by virtue of spending long times in the same house / room as someone who tested positive” and when you live with the person who’s been exposed, you’ve basically had the same exposure risk as them by the time someone else’s test comes in.

  5. Sled Dog Mama*

    LW did not say but I wonder if these absences due to exposures can be tied at all to deadlines that Sam has coming up. I would think that conveniently having an exposure just before a deadline was a documentable pattern that would have an effect on how the absences were addressed.

  6. Annony*

    One thing to keep in mind is whether talking to her is more likely to change her behavior or just to keep her from disclosing potential exposures. While I agree that it is frustrating and the employee should be more careful, I think it is much more likely that she just won’t tell you if she is waiting on test results.

      1. Annony*

        I’m not saying that would be the right choice for the employee to make, but they are already making some questionable choices. If they feel that they are being punished for their honesty, they very well may decide that their employer has lost the right to that honesty. The employer needs to come up with a solution that is both legal and enforceable. While they legally can ask their employee to make safer choices, they can’t exactly enforce it easily.

      2. Arvolin*

        There are people who will be in severe personal trouble if they miss a significant amount of work and don’t get paid for it (especially if, say, they’ve got significant medical expenses). People are not despicable just because they make a potentially bad choice in a desperate situation.

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        But it may happen. You have to plan for people doing these things – that doesn’t mean you’re saying they’re fine and great, just that you’re being realistic.

      4. Sacred Ground*

        Or a desperate person. We don’t seem to make the distinction in the US anymore. If you’re desperate, you’re assumed despicable.

      5. littledoctor*

        It doesn’t really matter whether they’d be a despicable person or not. The virus would spread regardless of the moral purity or lack thereof of anyone involved. That’s why we should plan for ‘despicable’ people when planning around COVID.

        I disagree that they’d be a despicable person for not disclosing after being warned at work about their COVID exposures, though. If they’re essentially being punished and stigmatised for being forthcoming, then it’s to be expected that they’d be less forthcoming in the future.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I agree. OP said they have been back in the office since June, so this tells me that they were working from home for a few months (unless they were furloughed for that time). If that’s the case, there is no reason that this person shouldn’t be able to WFH while awaiting test results because it sounds like his absence is causing the others to pick up his slack.

  7. Bobboccio*

    Don’t some jurisdictions have laws against disciplining employees for outside of work behaviour? (not mine)

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      But in this case, the out of work behavior is directly affecting the at work behavior (ie absenteeism).

      If I were the OP, I wouldn’t directly ask the employee to change his out of work behavior, but I would ask that he take whatever steps necessary to reduce the absenteeism. (I know it boils down to the same thing, but I’d want to make it clear I was taking issue with the impact on work.)

      1. Heather*

        Is it really absenteeism if he’s following his employer’s policy? Others have pointed out that this employer seems to require quarantining for situations where the CDC doesn’t even require it. What if the employer went even further and started requiring everyone to e.g. order groceries instead of going to the store, not to take transit etc – there is a limit to how much you can push this.

    2. Nikki*

      Agreed, if something the employee is doing outside of work is directly affecting their work, they should be subject to discipline. If an employee were staying out late partying every night and then coming to work tired and hung over and not fully able to do their job, their manager would absolutely be able to address the problem. Seems like missing work repeatedly like this would fall under the same category after it’s happened enough times to cause problems at work.

      1. littledoctor*

        If they’re disciplined for being forthcoming about potential COVID exposures, I think the likeliest outcome is simply that they’ll become significantly less forthcoming. This is how the virus spreads.

    3. fposte*

      The closest would be California, and even there employers have some latitude about free-time activities that affect the workplace.

  8. Veryanon*

    This is a question I’ve dealt with personally, as my company offers generous paid leave if someone needs to be out for COVID related reasons and can’t perform their job remotely, and inevitably, there are people who have abused it. One employee had 3 COVID-related absences WHILE he was on a performance improvement plan for attendance. He did not test positive in any of the situations; rather, he had knowingly engaged in behavior that increased his risk of exposure, such as traveling to known hotspots. My approach with these employees has been to frame it as both a respect issue (your job requires you to be on site and you are putting other employees at risk with your behavior) and a performance issue (you are missing an excessive amount of time for reasons that you can control). So far, the approach has worked out well and we have not had to formally discipline anyone. But I’m sure as this pandemic drags on, this will continue to be an issue.

    1. CM*

      I like this approach. I think it can help to put Sam on notice that his personal choices are affecting his work performance, without sounding like you are policing his out-of-work activities.

  9. Caramel & Cheddar*

    I’m assuming that Sam can’t work from home and thus wouldn’t be “absent” while waiting test results?

    1. OrigCassandra*

      This was my question too. I sure hope there’s a clear need for OP’s company to require office presence; it’s not obvious from the letter that there is.

      If there isn’t… then my advice would change to “get back to WFH.”

      1. EvilQueenRegina*

        That was my initial thought – would it be possible for Sam to work from home while waiting for test results? Is Sam in a role that could do that?

    2. LTL*

      Yes, I was wondering this. I’ve been job hunting and every company I’ve spoken to is WFH for the forseeable future.

      OP, if Sam’s job is at all possible to do from home, any rhetoric from the company about COVID precautions and responsibilities is going to fall flat.

  10. Mr. & Mrs. Squeakers; they live in your sneakers!*

    A place where my friend worked had a system (In the before times!) where they combined all vac., illness, personal) V.I.P days and paid them out every few weeks. So, if you had to be out, there was no permission asked for, you were already paid. Once you hit your limit say used all of your 15 days or, whatever, if hou needed more time off you were under performance review, whether to keep you or, not. The warning was at the beginning of the program. Very few people took advantage and as they were being treated as adults, they behaved as such. Maybe, it is time to do something like this AND, send this guy home to work under scrutiny and an admonition? He isn’t being very mature about his responsibilities, after all.

    1. Hiring Mgr*

      That doesn’t sound like being treated like adult to me.. If you get sick for longer than your allotted time they immediately put you on a PIP?

      1. Legal Beagle the OG*

        Yeah this sounds rigid and overly harsh. Also, I’m pretty sure Alison has said in the past that putting all PTO in one bucket is not a great practice, since people will come into work sick to avoid burning time off that they would rather use for vacation.

    2. Yolo*

      That’s an appallingly punitive, aggressive and unfair system. Definitely not a sign of a good employer!

    3. Arvolin*

      So, if I’d been working there when I had my heart attack, I’d automatically be under performance review? (I missed sixteen days of work, and it could have taken a lot longer, such as if I hadn’t had a desk job.)

      1. quill*

        Sounds like your average flu could put you on a PIP. Or a two day stomach bug if you’d already used enough of your budgeted time…

    4. Starbuck*

      Yikes, that sounds like a terrible policy to have to work with! You could plan a 1-2 week vacation at the beginning of the year and then an unexpected illness could easily put you on a PIP!? I don’t see how that is reasonable or sensible especially with such a low annual limit.

    5. Dancing Otter*

      So, if an employee has a heart attack that puts them in the hospital and cardiac rehab for any longer than three weeks, your friend’s company puts them on a PIP? If an employee needs a hysterectomy or cholecystectomy, also a PIP?
      Isn’t that prima facile evidence of discrimination for disability?

    6. Lady Meyneth*

      And that seriously doesn’t sound super ableist to you? Is there something I’m missing in this scheme?

    7. Jennifer Thneed*

      So, if nobody needs to “ask permission” to take time off, is nobody coordinating this info? It sounds like a perfect setup for half the office taking vacation at the same time and with no warning.

  11. Keymaster of Gozer*

    “You’re having a lot more time off due to possible Covid exposure than anyone else here. Can we help to reduce this? Workshop some ideas?”

    If they’re a general denier, they’ll say the rules are stupid, they can see/do whatever they want and it’s none of your business how much time he has off.

    If however there’s a genuine issue (‘I’ve got a kid in school whose been quarantined umpteen times so I have to be too”) it could open up a discussion. I dunno. Maybe how to reduce impact on coworkers when this guy is calling out regularly.

    (Haven’t encountered this issue yet. Though I’ve not had to be quarantined either due to almost no social life whatsoever)

    1. ...*

      If they were a denier I dont think they’d even bother reporting, much less be willing to go unpaid or use personal vacation time.

  12. Lizzy Bennet*

    I get that there’s a fine line to walk legally here, but if I worked with Sam I would be…. very annoyed. If his decisions that led to him being exposed 5 times a month made my job more difficult because his coworkers are required to pick up the slack, I would be quite resentful too. What does the company owe the rest of its employees?

    You can be a rule follower by the letter and still display an opinion on the pandemic with your actions. It sounds like he’s following work rules, but otherwise not altering his behavior much (if at all) outside of the office. to me, that reads like he thinks it’s not a big deal and is just capitulating to the office rules in the same way that someone might roll their eyes while complying with an outdated dress code or some other rule that they find stupid, but will follow to receive a paycheck.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I’m kind of a minority that thinking if they are just deliberately putting themselves needlessly in potentially infectious situations and then calling into work after every time it’s kind of akin to going out getting hammered and then repeatedly calling in with a hangover. Both times it’s something caused by the person knowingly but I don’t think many firms would let regular occurrences of the 2nd go without notice.

      1. Malarkey01*

        I agree with your hangover analogy as far as responsibility and response. I think what makes this different though is if hangover person pulls it together and comes in to the office sick that isn’t a risk to others. If CoVid person comes in, everyone is at risk. So if hangover and Covid guy are still going to be engaging in risky off the clock behavior you can’t attack the work related cause in the same way (for example I’d never tell hangover he couldn’t go out drinking I’d say you need to be at work and not take last minute absences” I would never say that to Covid).
        The balance here is making sure you don’t incentivize the wrong behavior.

        1. Just Another Zebra*

          I was coming here to say this as well (about hangovers being a relative equivalent). And I get what you’re saying about risk to one vs risk to many. But we don’t know specifically what kind of work Sam does. Is he a driver? A hangover is then putting many people at risk. It’s certainly a rabbit hole we can spiral down endlessly.

          I’d also like to throw out – I work in an emergency service industry, and some of our clients are hospitals and medical offices. We’ve had a handful of techs get exposed because of it. If Sam had called out 5 times in 5 months because “my SO got exposed *again*, I have to get tested and quarantined”, I’d be looking at this whole thing differently.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I think this is something that so many people are ignoring in the greater conversations about risk. All the studies keep showing that the Millennial Generation is driving the spread at the moment. But what is also being overlooked is the fact that Millennial generation is in the forefront of the group most likely to be far enough in a career to have a solid job but not far enough to always be able to work from home. Lots of their exposures are coming in the course of working.

            1. Just Another Zebra*

              Millennials are also the generation with the largest population percentage. So you have the largest group of citizens, mostly working in frontline/ essential roles, and are surprised that they’re driving the spread? It’s just another thing to blame on a generation of adults that’s underpaid and overworked.

    2. Roscoe*

      I mean, lots of “choices” can do that. Are you mad if someone injures themselves participating in a hobby often?

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Depends how much their injuries affect my job? Most injuries won’t keep someone home from work.

  13. Student*

    Limit the amount of paid time off you allocate for this – it should cover the “normal to above-normal” range of absences (COVID and otherwise) of your work force, but it doesn’t need to cover every conceivable legitimate absence in full. If you can’t afford to allow employees to take the PTO leave benefits they accrue, then you need to re-evaluate that benefit and your strategies to cover absences. You need to follow FMLA laws and similar laws, which provide for a certain amount of unpaid absences under certain criteria.

    Plan around Sam being absent in the near future at the same rate he’s been absent recently. That might mean moving him to a part time schedule, or hiring a temp, or changing his duties, depending on your details. Make the change about what Sam can provide, treating his need to take leave as legitimate – but also treating your business needs as legitimate. Document the real business needs and real availability of Sam to help defend your decisions if challenged. Talk with Sam to see if there’s a middle ground that works well for both parties – he might be relieved to be moved to a lighter schedule, or he might have ideas of how to meet the business’s needs.

    If Sam covers, for example, ~75% of what an average employee in your department can cover in a comparable environment, then plan around that. Move him to a ~75% schedule, and pay him at ~75% of your normal rates. Then come up with a separate plan to cover your missing 25% elsewhere. That might be a temp, a new part-time employee, a new full-time employee. That might mean reducing the load on your team by cutting some work. It probably doesn’t mean the rest of the team works at ~110% of normal capacity for the rest of COVID’s duration (or however the numbers work out in your department), unless you want take a high-risk gamble on burning people out, and potentially end up deeper in the productivity hole due to turnover.

    1. Jackalope*

      But how are you going to pick the days when Sam is out? If they’re gone 2-3 days/month on average, they’re still getting most of their work done. And there could be a few months with no exposure and then 3 times in one month.

  14. Liz*

    I think it’s presumptive to think this employee is taking advantage of the system. Perhaps he is the only one being honest about his actual exposure. He has continued to live a pre-covid life (contact sports??) and this employer is being a bit naive if they think he is the only one living that way. As frustrating as it is, I think they should leave this alone for the time being. Covid is going to be around for a long time and will likely get worse as the fall and winter come. Pandemic fatigue is a real thing, and it is very likely that, over time, more employees will have multiple exposures because they will stop being careful/outbreaks get worse. If they get too heavy handed with this employee now, it will set a tough precedent that will probably cause employees to lie in the future.

    1. Tuckerman*

      I agree. We’re all trying to navigate this as best we can. I’ve started letting my daughter play with kids sometimes because I’m concerned about the impact of keeping her in isolation. It’s not going to be “safe” to let her play for at least another year. My husband went back to work so he wouldn’t lose his business/income. Should Sam forbid his son to see his girlfriend for the next year?

    2. EvilQueenRegina*

      Also, Sam could stop all his social activities tomorrow and then get infected somewhere like the supermarket. Giving up his social activities and getting him to rein in his family won’t automatically guarantee he won’t be exposed again.

      1. Tired of Covid*

        Shopping is actually a very low-risk activity if properly masked and trips are relatively short. The workers at the store are at much higher risk than any of the transient shoppers. Fomite transmission is also not the primary method the virus spreads, its human expiration of infected respiratory particles on another human in sufficient quantity for a long enough period of time.

        There are no guarantees in the pandemic, we understand that. But to not use common sense totally increases the likelihood of bad outcomes.

    3. ONJ*

      Also, does the reason really matter? What if Sam was careful but lived with his brother who took all these risks? You can’t ask him to move out—what if he can’t afford it? The effect on Sam’s workplace would be the same.

    4. Starbuck*

      I agree… I was bitter at first reading this since I haven’t seen any of my recreational sport teammates since February and there’s really no question since it’s also a contact sport and I commute from an entirely different city to play…. but then the other exposure for Sam doesn’t sound like one that was really their fault, and we don’t know about the others. Don’t know how old the son is but there’s only so much control you can exercise over a teen before it backfires.

      OP didn’t mention anything about their workplace actually having any sick time, which gave me pause. Did Sam use up all available sick time? Or is all time off in the same bucket (sucky policy if so). If that’s the case I’d imagine there might be others in the workplace who could have had an exposure but aren’t reporting it because they’d essentially get punished for it.

    5. ...*

      It sounds like hes the one actually reporting exposures and using PTO or unpaid time to cover it. I think its a really tough call to say to someone, you need to be at work daily (which for me would mean using public transit on multiple lines), and you will be exposed to all of your colleagues, but you can’t let your son go to a friends or play a sport. Its basically asking them and their entire family to stay at home 100% EXCEPT for work. Just by walking outside I can clearly see that people ARE hanging out and are playing sports and are dining out. I can see that all just walking my dog. I think he’s the only one being honest!

      1. Super Anon for This*

        So much this. I’m pretty high risk and haven’t gone outside my home at all since March, since my husband can run errands. But if I have to go back to my office, that means a half hour on the subway each way, at rush hour. In my city, the subway is PACKED, so much you can barely move even to get in or out. If I have to be exposed to hundreds of people each day to get to a job, I will 100% assume I’ll get it no matter what I do to prevent it, and I will go back to living my pre-plague life because I might as well enjoy myself before I get very ill (and possibly die) from it.

        1. ...*

          Ugh, I’m sorry you’re stuck at home this whole time. I can tell you masks are not enforced on public transit here which is a shame, but the line of thinking you describe makes sense. Like If im gonna expose myself to work, I kinda wanna go out to dinner too!

    6. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

      It’s only going to be around for a long time because of people like Sam. If we (the US) had gotten with the program earlier, we wouldn’t be going through this right now or it would probably be to a much lesser degree. But nooooooo, God forbid folks give up going out for drinks or getting their hair done or seeing their friends or living their lives for the common good.

      I have massive COVID fatigue, but I’m not out going to bars, playing sports and seeing my family. I am QUARANTINING to be safe, not just for me but for people like Sam who refuse to do it for themselves.

      1. darlingpants*

        I agree with you personally (in that I’m not doing those things), but I disagree with you that it’s the individual’s responsibility. If it’s important for people to stay out of bars or barbershops or freaking Disneyworld, then the government should have shut them down. It’s unreasonable to discipline people for legal activities they do outside of work, even if it inconveniences the employer.

        1. GothicBee*

          This. The government has been directly behind the mess of conflicting info that has been going around. Don’t go out! But spend money! But don’t do anything risky! But we’re reopening so that the businesses don’t go under! Even people approaching this with a level head are likely conflicted in some ways. Like it or not, employers need to understand that this is a government issue (as in the government didn’t effectively address this) and you can’t really hold individual employees accountable for that.

        2. Jackalope*

          Yes! I too am doing my best to stay safe and limit exposure, but it’s frustrating seeing responsibility put on individuals when it’s an issue with the people who are in charge. The countries that have had the best success, from what I’ve seen, are the ones that paid people to stay home and not work. People didn’t lose their jobs or their businesses, the time required for people to stay home was much shorter and therefore more doable, and people could get back to something closer to a normal life more quickly. But we’ve had blame heaped on the people who went out of quarantine, rather than on the people who could have stopped it. Bars are open! Support the bars!…. Stupid people going to bars are causing an outbreak, what’s wrong with them?

          Or my personal favorite (which was discussed on a recent post on this blog), blaming college students for outbreaks on their campuses. Most college on-campus experiences in the US involve people living in close community where they are sharing rooms with non-family, possibly strangers (for the first time in their lives in many cases), sharing bathrooms (I know the bathrooms in my dorm were assigned to 20-30 residents per bathroom), everyone eating in a central cafeteria (or cooking in a shared kitchen), etc. Furthermore, students were charged tens of thousands of dollars for the semester (or year) and then in some cases suspended (or expelled) at the beginning of the year with no refund, and they are the ones blamed for it. People have said that the schools have no choice, that they will go under if they don’t get the tuition funds. That may be true, but the way to pay for that is not to charge students who will get almost no value from that money $36,000 (or more). Again, this is a failure at higher levels that’s being shoved down on students, some of whom are still teenagers, who even if they are behaving perfectly are still living in huge communal buildings with hundreds of strangers. In what universe is this acceptable?

          (I could add other situations that have been shared on the blog, like the librarians who are now babysitting kids who are being “quarantined” at the library with a bunch of other children so they won’t go to school and be around… a bunch of other children. But I’ll stop there.)

      2. James*

        There are a few issues here.

        First, Americans insist on a fair deal. We were sold lockdowns, properly or not, as a temporary means to flatten the curve–specifically, to reduce the incidents of high-risk infections to the point where hospitals could handle all the patients. The risk was that hospitals were becoming overwhelmed; we needed to stop that. Which we did. It was always known that this would prolong the pandemic, and it was always known–and accepted–that a certain number of people would die. It sounds callous, but that’s life; any action, and any choice to not take action, has a body count associated with it.

        Indefinite lockdowns until the disease is eradicated is something else entirely. It needs a new negotiation. To try to sell it as a continuation of an existing policy is fraud (imagine a company renting you a house, then insisting after two months that you pay triple the rent or get evicted). Americans HATE bate-and-switch tactics, and refuse to comply with them on principle. Whether this is good or bad is simply irrelevant; that’s how Americans will react, as history has shown repeatedly, so any pandemic response needs to account for that. Failure to do so is a failure of the pandemic response, NOT of society. If your plan doesn’t handle easily-predicted outcomes, your plan is fatally flawed.

        Second, lockdowns don’t work. Full stop. People do not like to be told what to do, who to see, etc. This has so much evidence supporting it that ignoring this is simply irrational. When something is so much a part of a a species that you can literally see evidence of it in their DNA you don’t get to ignore it. And most medical organizations acknowledged this prior to Covid-19. There are better ways to handle a disease.

        Third, while the “bars and barbers” crowd gets the press, there are in fact many jobs that cannot be stopped during a pandemic. The body count would be too high. Most cities have less than a week’s worth of food on hand. Power plants need to operate 24/7, as do sewage treatment facilities, internet service providers, and the like. If we don’t have people working in these jobs whole cities will die, slowly and in terrible agony. Then you have to consider the impacts of universal lockdowns on small businesses. Yes, I know, money is evil and whatnot–but remember, most businesses are small, most operate on very tight margins (a grocery store operating on a 2% margin is extremely fortunate), and families rely on this income to survive. Many employ people who need that income to survive. If we mandated universal lockdowns people near and below the poverty line would be grossly more affected than those of us with white-collar jobs that can be done from home.

        Put simply, the body count from mandatory indefinite universal lockdowns–especially among the poor, minorities, and other disadvantaged groups–would be unacceptably high.

        Further, we know much more about this disease than we did in, say, April. We know how it spreads. We know how it affects people. We know the typical order of symptoms. We know which people are at higher risk. We know how to prevent transmission. It is perfectly reasonable to revise our response to a pandemic given new data. In fact, that’s kind of how it’s supposed to work.

        We are in a situation where ALL options are bad, the only choice is which bad option we decide to take. The USA has decided to formally endorse actions which reduce the hardship on marginalized people while encouraging people who can to enact more stringent measures. This is….sort of how things work in the USA. We acknowledge that many things can’t be put into law, that the government can’t be trusted with certain decisions–but we also have very strong social pressures to push people towards making what we consider the right choices. It seems weird to many people, but it’s a fairly typical and entirely predictable response. It does mean that some people will engage in high-risk behavior, but we’re not going to stop that anyway.

        1. pancakes*

          Do you imagine there are nations of people who are fond of bait and switch tactics?

          The idea that the US has taken steps to reduce the hardships of the pandemic on marginalized people is equally baffling.

          1. James*

            “Do you imagine there are nations of people who are fond of bait and switch tactics?”

            That’s not really the question. It’s not a question of how a population views bait-and-switch tactics, but rather whether the change in justification for and length of lockdowns is viewed as one or not. I do think that some nations would have a prevailing mentality more amenable to a revised government order of this magnitude. That’s not a bad thing, either, just a cultural difference. Some nations have a strong tradition of trusting their government, some nations have a more tribal organization where the opinions of honored leaders hold more weight than they do in the USA, and so on. In those nations it wouldn’t be seen as bait and switch to revise the stay-at-home orders, but rather a relatively minor tweak, fully within the government’s established authority.

            I also never said that the government actively took steps to reduce hardship from the pandemic on marginalized people (though they have, just not as much as many people would prefer). My point was more to point out that indefinite lockdowns are not without cost, and that the cost is disproportionately born by people unable to bear it. Those calling for an end to the lockdowns are dismissed–and have been so in this thread, including in the comment I was responding to–as merely being childish and wanting frivolous things. The reality is very, very different. The lockdown isn’t without consequences, and those consequences need to be faced fully when evaluating the efficacy of the lockdown and advisability of continuing it. Maybe the lockdowns are justified, maybe they aren’t, but until we fully explore the consequences we can’t say for certain one way or another.

          2. Certified Scorpion Trainer*

            “The idea that the US has taken steps to reduce the hardships of the pandemic on marginalized people is equally baffling”


            the powers-at-be in my state were literally justifying opening up schools by saying “it only kills seniors and hispanics anyway.”

        2. Alice*

          Lockdowns were sold not only as a means to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed but also to buy time to set up surveillance testing, PPE supplies, contact tracing, and infrastructure to allow people who have the disease to quarantine away from families and roommates if they want to.
          Plenty of countries did that. Some states have done individual elements pretty well. Other US states are opening up with very little progress on those elements.
          Where do I sign up to insist on my “fair deal” that reopening begin when those four non-pharmaceutical interventions have been implemented?

          1. James*

            Around here the phrase we had drilled into our heads was “flatten the curve”. Other benefits were viewed as incidental; the main focus was to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. I’ll certainly agree that justifications for lockdowns varied regionally, though. We still don’t have adequate testing, contact tracing, or quarantining away from family (you’re expected to stay home, with your family).

            As for where to sign up to complain, folks on social media do it all the time. They get dismissed as merely wanting to go to bars and get hair cuts. Unfortunately this issue has become so political that it’s impossible to question indefinite lockdowns without everyone assuming that you’re advocating for locking up immigrant families.

            1. James*

              I should probably clarify that by “Around here” I meant geographically, not “at AAM”. Sorry for any confusion caused by my lack of precision!

        3. Melbourne*

          I live in a city (Melbourne, Australia) coming to towards the end of a multi month lockdown which is working (now around 10 cases a day), so I dispute that sentiment.

      3. LTL*

        I have seen people in other countries go out as much as people in the US (more in some cases- the things I’ve seen on Instagram…). It’s not that the pandemic is worse in America because Americans are more careless/have more COVID deniers. It’s because of access to healthcare. I’m not buying the line that people being careless is the problem in this country.

        1. Arvolin*

          The US has about 20% of the COVID deaths in the world, and maybe 4-5% of the world population. We’re massively screwing up here, for whatever reasons.

    7. darlingpants*

      The more I think about it the more I think you’re right. Also it seems like Sam is either in contact with conscientious people who do things like inform the whole sports league when they’ve tested positive, or in one of the very few states with effective contact tracing (or both). The whole point of contact tracing is so you can catch the people with 2-3 degrees of separation before they infect other people, and in Sam’s case it seems to be working quite well.

      We can quibble with (or vehemently protest) our government’s response to COVID, but if your local government has decided it’s cool for people to play contact sports (or go to restaurants, or spas or whatever), then I think it’s pretty crappy and counterproductive to try to make all your employees promise that they won’t do those things. You’re just incentivizing them to lie to you.

      1. Heather*

        Agree 100%. Especially since it sounds like this isn’t essential work that can’t be done from home (like it was at the beginning).

    8. James*

      This is a real issue. I work in the environmental industry, and have to report all spills/releases. Our site has a fair number of spills on record–hydraulic leaks, contaminated material that rolled out of an excavator bucket, that sort of things. Other sites have few or none. The difference is that my site is scrupulously honest and actually follows proper protocols. Everyone has spills; not everyone reports them.

      Covid 19 is similar. Many people will simply not report potential exposure. “I’ll wait and see if I develop symptoms”, “Maybe it’s just a cold”, etc. There are a lot of ways to convince yourself to not report exposure.

      Here’s the rub: If this guy is honest and gets punished for it, NO ONE will report potential exposure. This doesn’t mean they won’t be exposing themselves; it just means that you will have no way to know if someone’s exposed or not. I’ve seen exactly this process happen on hazardous waste sites–people follow procedures, report spills, and get punished, and suddenly there’s no more spills! Magically everything is better! Never mind the photos of spills occurring and lower-level staff complaining about management doing nothing to clean them up. It’s a well-known problem and one that OSHA has a lot of trouble with.

      One way to address this is to determine if there is work this person can do from home. If so, it removes the perception that this is an easy way to get time off. I mean, this should be the case anyway, but it’s more important here because of the perception issue.

      1. Amethystmoon*

        I reported possible exposure to my employer in the spring. Someone in my apt. got it, but they would not tell us which floor. I told my boss and was told to keep coming in. There was no testing without symptoms at the time. I took my temp every day, but what else do you do? If employer sats to go in, you go in or get fired.

        1. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

          My child had exposure to a known positive person (her daycare teacher) this past week. I reported it to my employer and was told to keep coming to work as long as she and I don’t have symptoms. They didn’t require testing of either of us. And I’m a front line health care worker. Maybe your front line health care worker.

          1. allathian*

            Oh dear, I’m so sorry. I sure hope for your patients’ sake that you have adequate PPE!

  15. Holy Guacamole*

    LW mentions ‘return to the office’ which suggests working from home could have been an option – can Sam not simply work from home while waiting for test results?

    1. WellRed*

      Or it means everyone was at home but not working and waiting for the office to reopen, especially as they re-opened so early. But yeah, if they can WFH, let them WFH.

    2. Cascadia*

      Yes, this was my exact thought! Even if Sam can’t do everything from home, they could probably do at least a good chunk of their tasks remotely, and then the impact on the team wouldn’t be so large.

  16. samecoin*

    Here is my problem with this the response from the lawyer ( I am speaking someone who has spent the last 9 months working remotely and masks up to do everything but walk my dog, and have seen 3 total people other than my wife since march, all outside from 10+ feet away). We are not property of the company, they do not own us, what we do on our private time is our own business. If you are a company that is having people work in a physical location, you pose as equal if not more risk to people, whatever your safety policies may be ( I work in health care as an administrator). if you live in a state like florida for example where all mask mandates and social distancing laws have been dropped, one of your employees could be exposed in any situation despite precautions.

    1. Malarkey01*

      I agree with this. Wherever possible whatsoever the best and fool proof way to protect your workers from work related exposure is to have them WFH. Even if not ideal and even at some potential productivity cost. Bringing people in for the sake of doing it means accepting that people are at risk from others with behaviors they can’t control. Some jobs it’s just not possible, but for many roles it is and that’s the first line of defense.

    2. Tired of Covid*

      I could not disagree more. Invasive drug testing definitely monitors what people may be doing in their private time. In the Federal service, we have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, meaning that eating and socializing with certain people or companies can be off-limits even during private time if there is a real or perceived conflict of interest.

      This is a freaking pandemic. It’s not about being property of the company. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. We have to do what we can and not just throw our hands up about the whole thing.

      Companies are definitely a fault for requiring people to come into the office when they can work remotely.

      1. EventPlannerGal*

        I’m not sure how relevant your first paragraph is, though. Most jobs do not regularly conduct invasive drug tests and dictate who you can socialise with; that’s a level of control over your personal life by your employer that many, many people have never experienced before and would not be okay with in ordinary circumstances. I absolutely agree that these are extraordinary times and everybody needs to pitch in, but this level of control is not normal in most jobs. Like, I don’t think it’s helpful to be like “well the feds live like this all the time!” because a lot of people are going to be like, well, good thing I’m not a fed, then.

        1. littledoctor*

          And many people have strong objections to drug testing. I certainly don’t support it, and think it has a very negative impact on people who have substance use disorders.

      2. Jackalope*

        And it’s also different to say, “Hey, you can’t break the law [by taking illegal drugs, for example] in your time off,” vs. “You can’t let your teenage son go visit his girlfriend in your time off,” or insert any number of other possible legal activities (going out for dinner with friends, playing football, whatever). If Sam had been WFH this whole time they would never have missed work for those possible exposures at all.

      3. TTDH*

        Government vs private work is an important distinction, though. As you know, if you want to go into government work you have to accept those trade-offs.

      4. Arvolin*

        In which case the government needs to do something.

        Every March, I go to a gaming convention in Wisconsin. This March, it was looking like a really bad idea (think over two thousand people coming from all over the country, spending three or four days in close indoors quarters, then going home), but if the convention had just shut down it would have owed so much money that it would have been permanently ended. What saved it was the state government saying “Don’t do that”, providing a way to cancel without it being legally optional.

        If we have to shut down activities, we need to legally ban them for the duration, or we’re just relying on the conscientious to slow down the spread while other people do what they darn well please (and infect the conscientious – my mask isn’t great protection for me, it’s much better protection for people I meet).

  17. apples or oranges*

    It’s a bit strange that OP and their company is insinuating that they want Sam to change his personal life when the company is telling them to be present at work. Without having the details in the letter about the industry, is there a reason people need to be at your office, OP?

    If there’s no reason the job needs to be done in the office, I can understand why Sam might think it’s okay for them to let family visit friends or play a sport if they’re also being asked to go into the office. If his son hangs out with his girlfriend and then they find out her family tested positive, how is that any different than an employee going to work and then finding out they tested positive?

    I realize people are on edge, but I think we’re walking a fine line about policing how risk averse people are in their personal lives. Not everyone can or wants to spend the rest of their lives cooped up in the house without going anywhere or talking to anyone. An employer shouldn’t be mandating how people spend their time outside work, either.

    The easy solution? If people can work from home, let them work from home. If people are waiting for test results, let them work from home. Calling out five times from June to October isn’t that much, in the grand scheme of things. It’s more suspicious if the times Sam is calling out line up with deadlines or major meetings. But in general? That’s once per month.

    1. KristineA*

      Agree with this. I think it would be helpful to understand what industry this is. In the first example, you mention that Sam’s son hung out with his girlfriend during “lockdown”, so I assume Sam was required to come into the office during lockdown then as well? If that is the case, it seems you are requiring your employees to take on a lot of risk and it’s not clear if that’s required or can be avoided by WFH.

      Also, with the contact sport, is this something allowed by the state, or not?

      Overall I think this is a really interesting question. It would be one thing if Sam’s exposure came from a 200 person indoor event, or something similar that would be prohibited, but if he is abiding by state guidelines and also your workplace guidelines I think there might not be much to push back on.

      The reality is that by requiring employees to come in you are throwing open the doors to possible exposure, and this is the natural consequence.

    2. Heather*

      Agreed. If I was being made to come into the office and be around people all day but then told members of my family couldn’t be around other people, I’d be pretty miffed.

    3. Black Horse Dancing*

      Sorry, five times in four months (June, July, August, September–October is barely started). and that per OP is at least 2 days per call and up to five days. So you are talking 10-25 days out of the office. that is HUGE. No wonder his co workers are po’d!

      1. Lady Meyneth*

        The number of days he’s out isn’t on Sam though, that’s the time it takes for the test. And one exposure per month, more or less, isn’t really outrageous for someone not WFH, especially if the company is saying 3rd hand exposure requires quarantine (such as the son’s girlfriend’s relative). And that’s not even counting that he, or others, might need to use public transportation to reach the office so it’s actually impossible to know when they are actually exposed, which could add to the notion of “what’s the point in quarantining”.

    4. GothicBee*

      This is a good point. I’ve been back in the office since June and I definitely relaxed some of my previous rules for myself. And by that I just mean I’ve been going to the stores in person more frequently than before and not limiting myself to grocery/necessary trips. I still think contact sports are a bad idea, but it’s harder to call Sam out on that if going into the office isn’t necessary either.

      If Sam does need to work in the office as part of their normal job, I like the idea of at least trying to find some work they can do at home because that will potentially head off any advantage-taking.

    5. SecretGay*

      Right – this comes across as saying that the risk from this work is acceptable, but any other risk is unacceptable, and thus all employees and their household members should have nothing going on in their lives other than this particular workplace.

      1. ...*

        Exactly. Get on the packed, mask-less bus of people coughing to come to work during “lockdown” but your son can’t leave the house. OK then!!

      2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        Yup. Even recognizing that near-complete isolation is doable (and maybe preferable) for some people, it’s so unrealistic and out-of-touch for a workplace to think that people can (much less should) organize their lives that way.

      3. Jackalope*

        This is one of the biggest issues I’m having with this line of thought. I know that work is important in our lives and we need to take it seriously. On the other hand, saying that the only thing we are allowed to do in our lives where we run into people outside of our own households is work, that we are being selfish if we do anything else with our family and friends at all because we must be able to go to work, is a bad prioritization. I say this as someone who has had very limited interaction with anyone outside of the grocery store and my household since March.

        1. Katie from Scotland*

          I think the pandemic has really clarified for me what’s a priority, on the basis of what I’m willing to do despite exposure risks. Regular gym trips – worth the exposure, because of the myriad ways that keeps me sane and healthy. Meeting friends in the pub – not worth it, we have other ways to chat. Getting the bus to work in an office all day around others – not worth it, I can do my job from home.
          Different people have different calculations for this of course, but if I had a client trying to tell me I HAD to be somewhere in person when that task has been perfectly doable remotely for the last 7 months, I would be firing that client in a heart beat.

  18. WellRed*

    OP. As others have mentioned, people have different views of what constitutes exposure. Are your company guidelines in line with CDC/local guidelines or are they more restrictive? Are they vague or clearly defined?

  19. Brett*

    To put this in perspective, this is the same level of exposure for you if someone in your child’s classroom test positive. In that situation, your child will quarantine and other children and adults at the school who were in close contact (within 6 feet for 15 or more minutes normally) with whoever tested positive. The rest of the school will not quarantine. Your family will not quarantine.

    If a family member of a child in the classroom tests positive, only that child will quarantine. The rest of the children in the classroom, even those who had close contact with the child, will not quarantine.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I agree with this. I know things like contact sports are frivolous, but depending on where you live, things may be opening up, and some of these exposures will be unavoidable. Employees children will go to school or daycare, their spouses will return to their workplaces (which may be daycares, schools, or medical centers.)

      And a certain degree of additional risk exposure will naturally arise as time wears on. There are a lot of things we can give up for three months, or six months, that it gets harder to skip when you’re looking at COVID restrictions for a year or two. Asking your teenager, especially an older teenager, to not see his girlfriend for 18 months, is really not reasonable, for example.

      1. londonedit*

        And people have different comfort levels with things, even within the official guidelines. Where I live, we’re (currently; there are stricter lockdowns in parts of the country but not mine at the moment) allowed to go to the pub (with tables of no more than six, extra distance between tables, hand sanitiser, having to wear a mask unless you’re seated at your table, no going up to the bar, giving your contact details for track and trace, etc). We’ve been allowed to do that since July, but I haven’t done it yet. My comfort level has been at the ‘occasional brunch with one other friend; will sit outside and have a drink; won’t go to crowded places’. But I have plenty of friends who have been going to the pub – totally within the guidelines – and I respect their decision to do so. If one of them gets a call to say they were at the pub with someone who’s since tested positive, and they therefore need to quarantine, can their employer really say anything about that?

        1. Maeve*

          I wouldn’t say I respect people’s decisions to go to indoor restaurants (I think it’s extremely stupid and irresponsible, in the US anyway), but at the same time, they’re permitted, and probably similarly dangerous to being in an office…

  20. delicate&lustrous*

    If he’s a COVID denier, I doubt that anything you say will decrease his likelihood of taking risky activities outside of work. After all, if he doesn’t think the pandemic is serious, then he doesn’t think those activities are risky. I would be worried that if you address the issue with him, he’ll stop reporting the potential exposure but won’t stop actually being exposed, putting the rest of your office at risk. But also, what he’s doing is ineffective. If you’ve been exposed, quarantining for two days until you get a negative test result is NOT the recommendation and will not stop spread. So you are getting all of the inconvenience and none of the benefit.

    I would enforce an actual two week quarantine period on this employee and anyone else with exposure, so at least you keep your other employees safe. Set guidelines for what kind of exposure requires a quarantine–I’ve read something like, at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive–and make sure there are known consequences for not reporting. If he’s lying about exposure to get a few days off here or there, I suspect making it a mandatory two weeks (given that he doesn’t get extra paid vacation time) will cut down or eliminate that issue. If not, I would just suck it up for the safe of all of your other employees, and address any performance issues that his actions are causing separately so that you don’t discourage reporting.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      The OP states quite plainly that Sam is NOT a COVID denier, so let’s not introduce that element into the conversation. Sam sounds more like a lot of people I know, aware that the virus is a problem but not completely on board with being completely strict about distance. A lot of people I know have expanded their circles to a degree that I think is madness, but people will go in circles to make it make sense to themselves.

      1. Thankful for AAM*

        I don’t think the OP says that, Sam is NOT a covid denier, just that they have no info that Sam IS a covid denier.
        Sam (an okay employee and coworker, not great and not without issues) complies with all office rules, like mask-wearing, and has never said anything about it being a hoax but is obviously putting themselves in a position to get exposed a lot.
        We have covid deniers (of various categories) at my workplace. They all fit Sam’s description perfectly. They comply with the state and workplace rules but do a lot of things outside work that the rest of us see as risky.

        I got exposed and told my workplace – HR told me when I did and did not have to quarantine as far as the workplace is concerned. Others raised this issue too – maybe the OP needs to be more in control of when Sam stays home?

      2. Maeve*

        There is so much cognitive dissonance going on! My family knows COVID is real and dangerous and always wears masks in public and yet I arrived for an allegedly outdoor, distanced dinner over the weekend and my dad, brother and his wife (dad is not in the same household and my brother and his wife) were standing within two feet of other, talking indoors, without masks. I was pretty shocked and yelled at them and will probably not being seeing any of them for a very long time. But if they’re doing this, surely other people are being equally stupid.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      This is a very good point. 2 days then negative test proves nothing. It has to be 2 weeks of total quarantine (not in a ‘I won’t go to work but I’ll still see my friends and stuff’ way but a ‘I don’t leave this house’ way) and I think if that were the case then this person might take a little more care in future? I mean, 2 weeks confined to the house is not fun by any means.

  21. sunny-dee*

    Okay, he lives with his son has has a girlfriend he does not live with who has a(n unspecified) family member that has covid. Does that seem particularly risky?

  22. I edit everything*

    If the work distribution is becoming problematic, I wonder if a company-wide statement like, “We have X big deadline coming up [or whatever is appropriate], and we really need all hands on deck. Please make wise, safe choices regarding your COVID exposure so we can work as a team and hit our goals,” would be an effective general announcement.

    That could be followed up with a “If you know you’ll need to take unusual risks for some reason, please speak with your manager so you will be able to more effectively work from home and continue to be paid/not use up your vacation.”

    This way the responsibility/expectation is clearly on the employee to be smart, there’s a reminder that employees’ personal decisions affect their team, and the expectation of still performing work is clearly stated (removing the temptation to take greater risks and get some extra free time). It’s a “we notice who’s supporting their team” message.

    1. Glitsy Gus*

      I agree with you on this, and I think it’s a great idea. That wording is really good, it’s specific and gives reasons without making prescriptive, personal statements

      That said, as many others have pointed out, by requiring people to be in the office the company itself is mandating the employees put themselves into an unsafe situation. While that may be necessary, you should acknowledge take it into consideration when you ask your employees to make additional sacrifices for the “good of the company.”

    2. Arvolin*

      And so what happens is that lots of people do not change their behavior, but just stop reporting it.

      People will do what their employers reward them for, not what is in the best interest of their employers. The difference is not necessarily obvious, but real nonetheless.

  23. Anon-mama*

    Ask a lawyer. In March, I had the fear that I’d have multiple quarantines due to the public service component and large daycare I use. Through good mitigation efforts, responsible behavior (masking, mainly) off work, and largely sheer dumb luck, I’ve had zero known exposure. We are in a low transmission, low test positivity rate state. I would factor in covid conditions in your area. Maybe Sam is the victim of bad luck in all their exposures. Some of the examples–Sam’s child bringing in the exposure, could be hard for Sam to control if the son is driving. We’ve been told outdoors is safer, so a sport is not necessarily inherently high risk (depending). But if the quarantines are a pattern that seem like Sam is ducking out of work, then work with someone about framing the conversation. Another thing you could do is ask anyone if they can get confirmation from the health department/doctor for the quarantine order. I don’t know if that can be done, but if they are legitimately getting contacted by a tracer about their exposure, it might be something to ask for.

    Also, keep in mind that if your state has deemed certain activities to reopen under certain conditions, the appearance of policing of people’s social lives might hold less legal weight. Other employees might be having good luck despite more private activities like “family dinner for the first time in six months” or *tinder hookups in hotspot city.”. Would you still have this conversation if the quarantines were from daycare, their only option? Religious services?

    1. KristineA*

      Agree here as well. You seem to be assuming that your other employees are not living with family that leave the house, or partaking in state-approved outdoor activities, but I’m guessing you don’t know that for sure.

  24. Bookworm*

    No advice but just wanted to wish you luck, OP. Thanks for being considerate of your other employees (even if it’s just about the workload issue!) because a lot of places aren’t. Hope you find a workable solution!!

  25. AnotherSarah*

    I’m curious about somewhat analogous situations–what if Sam went skiing multiple times a year and broke their leg, necessitating absences (obvs no risk of infection there but same issue with workload)? I *think* it would be okay to bring it up then–“hey Sam, maybe don’t do that”–but it seems that illness is treated differently from injury. And probably if a person got the flu multiple times a year, even if their exposures were a result of risky behavior, it wouldn’t be okay to reprimand them for that behavior, even if the connection is obvious. This is so tricky!

    1. Christina*

      I think there was a letter in the past about something similar – could an employer tell an employee not to do a risky physical activity like frequent rock climbing because the employer is worried about injury – and the response was no, you can’t dictate your employees’ activities like that.

      1. Amaranth*

        I don’t believe you can ever police their behavior, but you can warn of consequences from the results, such as persistent absenteeism, repeatedly needing to request unpaid time off due to exceeding SL/PTO, etc.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      That’s a one-time “exposure”, though, with resulting follow-ups. Sam’s situation is repeated, discrete exposures. It’s more like he’s breaking his leg repeatedly by doing the same risky activity over and over again.

      1. AnotherSarah*

        That’s actually what I was thinking, Dust Bunny–Sam goes skiing multiple times a year and always injures himself severely.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          Right, you have to focus on the actual business impact. It’s not about skiing, it’s about Sam’s ability to show up and do his job reliably.

  26. Steveo*

    This highlights the major issue with a pandemic – it requires people to consider how their actions impact others – and many people are extremely bad at it – “but I wanted to play football or go to a bar” could end up killing someone.

    1. Glitsy Gus*

      I totally get that and on some levels agree. However it goes both ways. The office saying, “But I want your butt in your office seat. I’m paying rent on this place.” Can very much fall into the same boat as “but I want to play football.”

      We don’t know if any of this work in this situation can be done remotely, but I know for most of my friends in average office jobs that have been forced to go back, it really isn’t mandatory; or at least everyone being there every day isn’t mandatory. The bosses just want it that way. They are putting their employees at risk every single day so they can feel good about seeing folks in the office. Why is that more important than being outside and having a healthy social life?

  27. Lora*

    This is what happens when leaders don’t lead, and throw their hands in the air and “derp derp we don’t know what to do! I guess it is a mystery of the universe we shall never understand…”

    In the case of this particular guy who seems to not give any effs and does what he wants: 1) take out a life insurance policy benefitting the company in the event of his death 2) I like the lawyer’s recommendation to get creative about how he and others can work from home. If your reason for why people can’t work from home is something like “team building” or “so they can quickly talk to each other if they have a question” then this is why the good lord made Teams / Skype / every other IM program on earth. Worst comes to worst and you’re such a small company you can’t afford new software – there’s always WhatsApp.

    Weirdly, there are loads of senior managers who hate the notion of their actual employees working from home – but at the same time they are happy to outsource entire departments to a call center in Costa Rica or India. How…? Frankly if this is a job that could be outsourced somewhere, somehow, then it is a job that can be done from home. Would it be feasible even to re-structure the work so that a bare minimum of people come in to the office? A lot of the groups I work with have a main team at their own office or remote, but they have one or two people who are the Designated Office-Goers, and those people are allowed to spread themselves far apart, group themselves into offices according to risk levels, etc.

  28. Caroline Bowman*

    I think that’s a valid question but undoubtedly this is terribly Un-PC. I will never forget, right toward the beginning of this whole fiasco, I suggested that taking a temperature to ensure that someone who *claims not to be sick* but is coughing and appears ill, doesn’t have Covid-19 and I was shrieked and screeched at. I suggested it because where I am (not the US), it’s been pretty standard at places where contact is going to be more than brief and in passing / indoor, so when going to one’s place of work.

    Of course the US laws are different and everyone, but whilst obviously imperfect, it does prevent obviously-sick people who are… shall we say… unconvinced that ”a little flu” is any reason to stay home… from infecting everyone in their place of work.

    Anyway, undoubtedly there will be outraged feelings on daring to suggest that someone, you know, stop deliberately putting themselves in likely-exposure situations as much as is practical and feasible. I actually don’t think life has to stop altogether, BUT there are many, well-documented ways to greatly mitigate risks and reduce exposure in sensible ways and why would you put yourself deliberately in harm’s way ? Who wants to get sick?

    1. allathian*

      The temperature check is unreliable at best. You can be sick and not run a fever.

      The biggest risk here is that if employers try to tell people what they can and can’t do off the clock, employees are just going to stop being honest. Even the abuse of paid leave is preferable to people coming in sick and infecting others.

      But really, if at all possible, make Sam work from home.

      1. Oska*

        “You can be sick and not run a fever.” This is important. I’m a Typhoid Mary for “normal” infections. Last time I had a cold/flu/whateveritwas, I didn’t have a fever until my symptoms peaked (symptoms: was REALLY tired when the alarm woke me up, and had been since the night before. Slight headache. End of list.). This was pre-covid, so I only called in sick because of the fever. Everything else could just mean I didn’t get enough sleep, after all, and that was no reason to stay home. I called in, went back to sleep, got up a few hours later and took my temperature again. No fever, and the only sign I was sick for the next couple of days was that I slept most of the time.

        If someone coughs and appears sick these days, they should be sent home, fever or no. I know I’m worried about being Patient Zero to my friends and family because of my history of being asymptomatic.

      2. littledoctor*

        Yeah, the virus can be asymptomatic the entire time you have it, and fever is often NOT the first symptom.

  29. J3*

    Just want to say that as an employee I would not be appreciative (actually, was not appreciative when I received one) of a memo telling people to limit their exposure outside of work. Really the only thing I want to hear from my employer is: What infrastructure are *you* putting in place to keep me and others safe in the workplace, working off the assumption that we have limited ability to know or control what people do in their personal lives. And conversely, what do you need me to *do* at work per your policies, depending on the risk level that I *have* exposed to outside of work? With all due respect, save the vague reminders to not get Covid for my doctor and put that energy elsewhere.

    1. J3*

      Like… nobody’s out here trying to get coronavirus. And the few people who are aren’t going to see the light from HR at work sending them a memo.

      1. anon for this*

        Maybe nobody at your workplace, but there have been parties designed to catch covid.

        We got an email in the city where I work saying, hey, if you keep having parties with each other and exposing yourselves to COVID, we won’t be able to function any more. We have x number of staff sick and x in quarantine right now. The numbers were bigger than I expected.

        The email was not approved by HR and there was a bit of a fuss about it.

    2. PersephoneUnderground*

      Yeah, basically this. It’s not particularly helpful to hear that from your employer. The lawyer answer was very much a lawyer answer, not a practical answer likely to go over well or be particularly effective. Not a dig, but lawyers simply frame things a certain way by their training.

      This particular person could be acting risky, or could be especially conscientious about reporting possible exposures when their co-workers are less so but doing the same sort of activities- you can’t really tell.

      Overall I think it’s best to let this go and try to work around the problem by arranging some sort of work from home next time this happens- get creative! (That part of the lawyer’s response I really did appreciate.)

      1. LTL*

        The answer struck me that way as well. It’s a well-thought out, well-written answer but there’s little in the way of practical work advice.

    3. Cass*

      Normally I would agree with this but not right now. This is exactly the kind of thinking that puts people at additional risk. Someone doesn’t want to hear about personal responsibility from their employer because the choices they make outside of work are none of their employer’s business. Except right now they are. But why should they have to change their behavior when off the clock? If they decide to do something stupid and bring COVID into the workplace then it’s their employer’s responsibility to ensure everyone’s safety, right?

      You may want to hear about limiting your exposure in your off hours while at work, but pretending that your personal choices don’t impact your coworkers with respect to COVID doesn’t really work.

      1. J3*

        It’s not that people shouldn’t be responsible or that the choices they make don’t matter, it’s that these kinds of messages from work HR are not useful.

  30. Ginger Baker*

    Re “would you still have this conversation” if it were exposure from non-optional situations: I think the hangover allegory above is a strong one. Or, for instance: I have an employee who is regularly falling asleep at their desk. There’s a huge difference in how we would treat that if a) they have narcolepsy or b) are out partying all night frequently.

  31. Bella*

    I thought I was going to roll my eyes at some guy hanging out with his bros having drinks every day after work and that was the reasoning here, but honestly the problem seems to be the employer policy…. he can’t really help what his kids/the people who live with him do, especially when asking a child to have no contact with other kids for a year or more is honestly…. very difficult.

    He can only be honest with you about potential exposure.

    And honestly the more I think about it, the more likely it is that most people in your office simply aren’t being as diligent about self reporting as he is. We’re 6 months into this – what’s the real likelihood that everyone in your office has avoided all activities that could potentially lead to exposure? And that not only they have, but their entire *family* has – for half a year?

    I guarantee people just aren’t reporting things because there’s too many potential instances.

    1. Bella*

      like… is not a single person in the office related to a healthcare worker, who are potentially exposed every day? I don’t buy it.

    2. Heather*

      Seconded. They probably all noticed how much unpaid time Sam has had to take off and they’re keeping their mouths shut.

    3. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      +1, sort of. If my employer is, well, ignorant enough to assume that everyone lives in a household where they have full control over their exposures, there’s no reason to expect that they’ll be able to make sense of employees’ exposure risk.

  32. Leah*

    I had a situation where a coworker could not complete one of their responsibilities because they went away for a long weekend (on vacation) to a state where they needed to quarantine when they came back so couldn’t work in the office. I in turn had to cover for them even though the responsibilities are not part of my job. I live with my elderly immune compromised father and have not left my house since March when all this went down. My colleague got to take a vacation and the work from home with pay and suffered no consequences. I could used a sick day to not cover her but I would have lost earned time off and looked like I was not being a team player.

    1. Thankful for AAM*

      I really hate things like that. I’m sorry that it happened to you.
      I wish managers/employers noticed things like this.

    2. Roscoe*

      The problem though is your company, not the coworker, as much as you’d like to blame them. Like, if he was working from home, and they gave you their opportunities, you shouldn’t be mad at him.

      Companies do that to shame people instead of making better policies

      1. live*

        I’m not sure how someone making travel plans knowing they would have to quarantine afterwards and not caring how it affects their coworkers is the company’s fault? Should the company have denied the paid time off is that what you are suggesting?

    3. Jennifer Thneed*

      So, your coworker made a travel plan, knowing that as a result they would be unavailable for a work duty? How is that okay with their manager?

  33. Bad Hare Day*

    Would this fall under excessive absenteeism? My former employer had an excessive absenteeism policy that if you were out X number of sick days over Y instances during a 12-month period, you could be disciplined, up to and including termination. I think it was 12 days over 4 instances (we accrued 10 days a year that never expired) but I can’t recall exactly. There was an exemption for FMLA leave/ADA accommodations, so if you had a chronic illness that required one day off a month or needed to take a medical leave of absence you wouldn’t be penalized.

    1. Kara S*

      I think given the circumstances, the employer can’t really call for this. You can’t ask people to isolate when exposed to COVID and then also limit how many days they’re allowed to do this.

    2. Niktike*

      That’s an excellent way to get him to keep quiet about his exposures and get everyone sick.

  34. Epsilon Delta*

    This is such a terrible situation because someone has to “lose.” Either the employee gets paid time off every time they’re waiting for test results (employer loses money and productivity), or the employee is forced to choose between taking the time unpaid or lying about exposure (employee loses, plus anyone else they expose at work). Employers definitely should have more cushion for absorbing the cost of paying extra PTO in a perfect world, but it’s especially burdensome on small businesses and those that operate on thin margins/small teams. And people who take advantage of the system EXIST. They’re not a majority, but it’s not such a rare occurrence that we should disregard it entirely.

    The real answer is that we should have gotten this under control in March, or should have used the last seven months to create a faster, more effective testing and treatment plan. Or we should be enforcing stricter stay at home orders now like we did in March/April and closing nonessential businesses that contribute to spread (bars & restaurants I’m looking at you). But none of those things happened, so here we are pitting employees against their employers when exposures inevitably happen repeatedly.

  35. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

    Just chiming here to say that, and this is just MHO, this is all just splitting hairs. Unless and until we get the rona under control, again IMHO, we shouldn’t be seeing ANYONE. Primary, secondary, tertiary….cut it all off until NO ONE else has died and we’ve had no additional transmissions for a certain period of time.

    Of course, that will never happen, especially with the kind of *ahem* “leadership” the US is showing these days.

    1. PersephoneUnderground*

      I wish we could, but we all have to assess our risk levels, mental health, and personal circumstances, and do as much as we can within the CDC guidelines to limit exposure. My mother lives alone and we both have a history of clinical depression, so she’s in a bubble with myself and my husband, and we visit her regularly. Restaurant workers have to go to their jobs to cook all the takeout people are ordering, because it’s that or risk eviction for not paying rent as soon as the protections from that go away. Etc.

      Reasonable people who take this seriously still struggle with a thousand individual calls on how to balance these things.

      1. ...*

        Yup. You can’t cut out all contacts and still have a world that’s running. The world is interconnected. If you want grocery and amazon delivery, contacts are going to happen and those contacts live with people, and so on and so forth.

    2. ...*

      And that is very demonstrably not going to happen, so we have to create policies based on what is happening and what people actually do. I’m surprised people are in such shock and awe that someone would leave their house during covid, when we know for a fact that there’s been 40 years of public health education around HIV and unprotected sex, yet people go out and do that all the time. We’re really surprised by someone playing a sport? We have to operate in reality, and complete abstinence never works. In my view, the employee is doing the right thing by staying home and reporting his exposure and getting tested. That’s how we actually stop this thing. Not by telling people to only leave their homes for work and absolutely nothing else for potentially years, because that just literally will not happen. Also, not to mention people have roommates and spouses and kids they live with who could get exposed at work or catch it at the store. Shut everything down forever except for work just doesn’t work. There would be nothing left.

      1. Georgina Fredrika*

        yeah, that’s very true. And honestly I would say most people I know aren’t COVID strict, either because they can’t be or after 5 months, they don’t want to be. I was actually really surprised when I visited a friend a week ago with how diligent they were – wearing masks around me even outside, and they haven’t been to a restaurant since Feb. and haven’t seen their families at all.

        Most people I know try to limit stuff, but the restaurants here in the city have hour waits now at popular times. Outdoor events are happening. People have visited their families. Most people on dating apps want to meet up in person. Etc

        1. Maeve*

          Where do you live? I cannot imagine not wearing a mask if I was within six feet of someone outside, and would never meet a friend inside, and I don’t know anyone in my personal life who would consider either of those things except my dumbass family has gotten sloppy about distancing and masks with each other–but they’re still not going to restaurants!

      2. pancakes*

        This comment would make a lot more sense if the person you’re replying to hadn’t made a point of saying, “Of course, that will never happen . . .”

        Do you believe there’s nothing left of New Zealand?

        1. ...*

          I think New Zealands strategy worked because they are an island of 5 million people. And I think that is great. They dont have the spread so they can operate in their reality. We do have the spread so we have to operate in ours.

          1. pancakes*

            It certainly helps them to be on an island, yes, but it’s not the only nation to have had a far more sensible and better-planned lockdown, drastically reduced covid cases, and returned to something close to normal life.

          1. Greetings from Eastern Bubblonia*

            Not in New Zealand, but in a spot with similar epidemiology. No, there’s not a lot of ‘never leaving my house’ around here anymore. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with limited entrance and exit options and the government has had the sense to severely limit travel (mandatory quarantines after travel), you can live a fairly normal life albeit with more masks, fewer crowds and no large events.

          2. pancakes*

            No. Why would I? Is anyone here advocating that? Are any influential epidemiologists advocating that? Anyone at all?

    3. Spearmint*

      This is not helpful or realistic. I’m as big of a critic I’d the US’s pandemic response as anyone, but given where we are, it’s not realistic or fair to scold people for seeing anyone outside of their home. We’ve been in this for over 6 months, and may well be for another year or two until there is widespread vaccination. People can’t go 1.5-2.5 years without seeing significant others, family, friends, and so on.

      There needs to be greater emphasis on harm reduction. There’s a huge difference between seeing a couple friends in person who themselves are seeing few people outside the home versus going to a large indoor party. I think employers and people in general need to talk about this more rather than a binary choice between quarantining and not quarantining. (There are some good articles in The Atlantic about this from earlier this year).

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        Part of the problem is that there seems to be a not-insignificant portion of people out there who don’t or can’t relate to quarantine fatigue for one reason or another. Or, they don’t recognize that the personal costs of going a couple years of having close to no social contact is, oddly enough, vastly increased by the fact that not everyone is making that choice.

          1. BubbleTea*

            I think you could reasonably interpret “cut it all off until NO ONE else has died and we’ve had no additional transmissions for a certain period of time” to mean at least a year of no social contact. Unless the suggestion was that no one should have contact with anyone even at work, even key workers, even healthcare staff, even in shops, which… well sure, after a few months the virus would die out. But so would a huge swathe of the population. And it is worth bearing in mind that the Bubonic Plague still pops up now and then.

      2. Aggretsuko*

        I planned to go years without seeing ANY other humans that weren’t Safeway delivery or medical professionals. I couldn’t do it. I cracked. Also in one case it was pretty much forced upon me that either I go see my mother or she was gonna show up at my house, like it or not. I actually hugged someone twice on Sunday, I was doing so poorly.

        I agree with the poster, but I failed.

        1. Maeve*

          I’ve been seeing people outdoors maintaining at least six feet distance (generally more), and if we have to come within six feet of each other briefly, always putting on a mask. Definitely not allowing my mother in my house (she wants to see my new apartment, masked of course, I say no) but we’ve gone on masked walks together. None of these are no-risk, but they’re fairly low-risk. Of course the weather where I am is soon going to make hanging out outside much more difficult, so I think it’s going to be a pretty lonely winter as I definitely won’t be gathering with anyone outside my household until we’ve got a vaccine.

          1. littledoctor*

            For me, that just would not be possible. I would not be able to survive with so little contact, and especially physical contact.

      3. virago*

        “Employers and people in general need to talk about this more rather than a binary choice between quarantining and not quarantining.”

        *I’m* not talking about “the binary choice between quarantining and not quarantining.” (I grok that you are referring to the topic of the post.)

        I’m fine with people leaving the house as long as they wear their dang mask and stay 6 feet apart!

        But as we’ve seen here in Maine (where I live), a lot of people react to being required to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart as if it’s just as onerous as a months-long lockdown.

        Then there’s the “but I don’t ever go to nursing homes, so I’m not around anyone who’s really at risk” crowd. Give me a break.

        So you know for a fact that the person beside you at the grocery store or church or the post office doesn’t have diabetes or high blood pressure or sickle cell disease? (To name just a few of the conditions that put people at elevated risk for severe COVID if they happen to become infected.)

    4. EventPlannerGal*

      This is a deeply unrealistic attitude, so much so that statements like this are meaningless. You cannot expect everyone on earth to barricade themselves in their houses for some unspecified period of time, maybe years. You have to create policy based on the actual world that we live in, not some fantasy world.

      1. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

        Right. Excluding mental health considerations, we would simply die because most people don’t have more than a month’s worth of food or water stored. And it’s possible to have no contact with anyone and physically survive for very long. And if grocery store workers, farmers, meat processors, delivery drivers, HCWs, etc are all out and about then this is nonsensical – there will never be a no transmission future time.

      2. Jackalope*

        Yes, I’ve heard one particularly depressing statistic saying COVID could continue causing serious health problems for TEN years. It’s not realistic to assume that we will lock ourselves in our houses and not see family and friends for that long. We will have to figure something else out if it drags on that long.

      3. Maeve*

        Every time I hear people say this it’s from people who are not taking precautions at all. I’m not barricading myself in my apartment. I am seeing people in parks and maintaining a six foot distance. I am going on masked walks with friends and family. I’m hanging out with people in their back yards (again, always maintaining distance.) I’m going on outings to the outdoors farmers market. When the weather is bad I’m having Zoom happy hours. Yes, it’s going to get a lot harder this winter, and I miss going to bars and restaurants SO MUCH. But we have to make sacrifices to protect our communities. I don’t really know what the best answer for this employer is especially if they are in a place without much in the way of restrictions, but on a general level, asking people to take precautions to prevent their friends and family and neighbors from dying seems pretty reasonable to me, and is not the same as complete isolation.

        1. littledoctor*

          Sure, and those are good things, and I think it’s a good thing for people to do them. But not everyone is capable of surviving with that kind of extremely sparse, limited contact, and without physical contact.

    5. Heather*

      That’s like saying “teenagers simply shouldn’t be having sex”. The world doesn’t work that way. You have to make policies for the way people are, not the way you wish they were.

    6. Nancy*

      That won’t happen because it is not realistic. You cannot expect everyone to cut off all contact and be by themselves for years. Society would collapse, people would end up dying for other reasons, etc. What an awful world to live in. No one did that for any other pandemic.

    7. Julie*

      Are you also advocating that no one have sex outside long-term monogamous relationships to end the AIDS pandemic? Fantasy land solutions are no use to anyone.

        1. littledoctor*

          I don’t think it’s a ridiculous comparison at all. The coronavirus pandemic and the AIDS epidemic have a lot of similarities.

      1. Safe sex is a good metaphor*

        Agree, and fantasy land demands aren’t just useless, they make things worse–they create even more rage and resistance and fatalism.

        They invite more people to say F-it to condoms/masks/safe behaviors and just say, “God’s in charge of germs, he’ll sort out who dies and who doesn’t, I’m not gonna worry about it anymore. Anybody who’s worried can stay at home and let the rest of us keep the factories running so people don’t run out of insulin and anxiety meds that they get delivered. If they haven’t already.”

        The curve got flattened, and more contact is happening, like it or not. It can happen stupidly and fatalistically in rejection of unrealistic demands, or it can be a not-perfect-but-workable plan that factors in real-life human behavior.

    8. agnes*

      not that simple Destroyer…. for some people isolation is a real mental health problem. I had a friend who was almost suicidal staying home and is now cautiously taking walks with us (with precautions) and is doing much better. IMHO, there are ways to be more active while mitigating risk to a acceptable level for many. Important thing is for people to be honest about what they are doing so that others can assess their own risks and decide if they want to interact with this person.

      1. Maeve*

        Masked walks are a great way to socialize! Because you’re both moving it seems pretty unlikely that droplets would pass between the two of you. There is a lot of space between “total isolation” and “hanging out unmasked with whoever.”

  36. Roja*

    That last line was my thought too. Expecting people not to see their significant others for 18+ months is not a reasonable ask. A few people may do that, but the vast, vast majority won’t. I’ve done the whole long-term, long-distance relationship and would not do it again, even for a pandemic, and certainly not for such a long time. Let’s save our indignation for people who are doing atrociously unsafe things, not, you know, seeing the person they’re dating.

    Honestly, Sam seems like they’re taking a middle-of-the-road approach, and they’ve just been extraordinarily unlucky (or perhaps are isolating themselves in situations where they don’t really need to). I don’t like the framing that exposure to COVID is a moral failure. Certainly there are times when it arises from something very foolish, but like you said, additional risk exposure is just going to increase from perfectly normal situations. It’s just how it is right now.

    1. Roja*

      Ugh, this was meant to be a reply to someone long upthread… somehow that got messed up! Oh well, most of the comment stands on its own I guess.

  37. Roscoe*

    I feel like the problem here is who deems what person activities are “acceptable risks” and which aren’t. If he is married, and his wife comes in contact with someone who tests positive, are you going to chastise him for that? Like, its very easy to be frustrated by the contact sports, but a lot of the other stuff sounds much more gray. And even the contact sport is a bit too “controlling” (for lack of a better word) for my liking.

    I think its fine to say he can’t come in, but you should probably have some kind of WFH options or something that people can do that won’t cause this much of an issue if they aren’t phycially there. Because again, there are so many ways you can possibly be exposed. I know some people who haven’t left there house since May. I know others who have taken a few vacations (to places that aren’t hot spots). I know many people who are someplace in between. But again, it sounds like he has a family, so you aren’t ONLY trying to restrict his behavior, you are trying to restrict his families behavior which is a bit much IMO.

    1. Firecat*

      I agree. Some people are attending church services in person. Personally I find that unacceptable but as an employer that’s not a great place to start policing.

      There is a fine line between “You must come to work well rested and clean” and “You must sleep 9 hours, wake 2 hours before work, and shower each morning.”

  38. Firecat*

    I’ll tell you what not to do.

    Don’t send an all staff email saying:
    “Days spent awaiting a test, if found negative, counts against you for bonuses and raises”

    – signed a fed up healthcare worker

    1. comityoferrors*

      Wow. That’s ridiculous, and will just make people less willing to self-report. How heartless and short-sighted can you be?

      My healthcare org has one bucket for PTO and sick time and a pretty punitive “absenteeism” policy. I anticipated that being a problem when I started here – you don’t want your nurses and techs coming to the hospital with the flu to avoid losing their vacation or being placed on a PIP – but now it’s playing out in the most predictable way with COVID. It’s just going to get worse as flu season ramps up, too. You’d think healthcare companies at least would have this crap figured out, but no.

      1. nonegiven*

        I’m hoping wearing masks will help with the spread of flu, too. If people would quit using them as chin adornment.

    2. littledoctor*

      As a healthcare worker, I would think you would understand that penalising people for being cautious during a pandemic is guaranteed to increase the virus’ spread.

  39. Roscoe*

    It really does amaze me in this thread how many people are taking the employers side here. Like others said, without knowing the specific industry, its hard to say whether or not he really NEEDS to be in the office. But people are willing to just assume this guy is taking advantage of the system or being reckless. When I’d argue that by requiring people in the office, the employer is the most reckless person in the story.

    1. Hare under the moon with a silver spoon*

      Same – I was wondering how long before we get a Sam type writing in about how their employer refuses to take their conscientious attitude seriously in reporting exposure.

      Not sure how it works in OP’s area but in the UK there is something official when you’ve had exposure via contacts – text results etc. And if there isn’t surely it’s time to get just as angry/lobbying your govt officials to get something in place so your company can try and operate in a once in hundred year pandemic – instead of loading all the responsibility on to your employee.

    2. PersephoneUnderground*

      I think there’s just a lot of projection with topics like this, people fill in a picture of the employee with the person in their own life that they are frustrated with over Covid risk. It’s easy to turn a specific situation into “omg everyone is so reckless” when you’re already frustrated by the topic in real life. I agree that without the detail that they really can’t work from home, it’s likely the employer is being the most risky here of everyone. Even contact sports don’t have you sharing air with multiple other people indoors for hours on end like work does. They’re not by any means risk free, but they’re not necessarily worse.

  40. Arctic*

    If you start penalizing or pushing back on Sam the result won’t be that your employees take fewer risks. The result will be that no one reports if someone in their social circle has tested positive until they, themselves, have a positive result.

  41. Librarian1*

    Gah! I’m making the assumption that your office was working remotely prior to June when I say: If your employer would just let everyone keep working remotely you wouldn’t be having this problem!!!

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      Yes! Even if it’s just a case of allowing Sam (well, should be open to all employees who feasibly can) to work from home just during their quarantine period and do what they can there, and then come to the office after that, even that means the employee can still get some work done and there’s less impact on others having to cover.

  42. Autumnheart*

    You know, all this just underlines how bullshit American work culture is. What’s the concern here? That the employee might be in increased danger from COVID? Or that other employees are? That the spread of the virus is going to accelerate the possibility of exposure, and how companies can explore alternate ways in which the work can be done while understanding that viruses gonna virus?

    Nooooooooo. The problem is that this employee might be getting TOO MUCH TIME OFF and whether we can fire him for that in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe this employee should have his PTO docked and be forced to work while he quarantines. Maybe he should be forced to take unpaid time! American work culture in a nutshell, you take away my money so I’ll take away your money, consequences be damned. Maybe it’ll kill you if I do that, but hey, that’s what happens when employees don’t put their JOB ahead of their own health and their personal relationships and everything else in life, even if it means their own goddamn funeral.

    I mean look. In the US, this virus is going to affect more and more people. It’s going to be harder and harder to avoid being exposed. Until the government decides to coordinate a response to effectively suppress transmission, people are not going to be *able* to keep working and protect themselves against all vectors. The two goals are directly incompatible.

    So then what? Are companies going to accelerate this process, by putting it on employees to choose whether to preserve their livelihoods at the expense of their own lives, or vice versa? Is that really an ethical choice? Really? Is there NOTHING a company can do besides boil it down to those two things? It’s fucking criminal. There’s nothing stopping a company from just *changing your PTO policy* so that people who have to quarantine aren’t penalized, especially if they can do their job remotely. Yeah, you know what, there might be some people who get exposed more often, just like there might be some people who get fucking cancer twice, or wind up in a brutal car accident, or lose their wife in childbirth and have a newborn to take care of by themselves. Shit happens. What are you going to do, fire everyone for excessive absenteeism who winds up a long-hauler with a months-long recovery? Are we really going to metaphorically put every COVID sufferer in front of a jury to see whether they got the virus because they were “irresponsible”? Last time I checked, the just world fallacy is just that, a fallacy. Nobody is “earning” this virus because their kid hung out with his girlfriend. There’s no *rule* that keeps a virus from infecting you. That’s not how viruses work. They’re not Santa Claus with a list of all the naughty kids.

    It’s just bullshit. The government is actively promoting a disinformation campaign against the severity of the virus, and making it impossible for a lot of people to even get tested, much less stay home and quarantine without risking their own economic destruction. Maybe companies should consider not adding to it by creating arbitrary hurdles for people to fucking stay safe. Look at this letter. The advice is to tell an employee to report possible exposures, but that unpaid leave is frowned on? What the fuck does that accomplish? Oh, better make sure you have enough PTO so you can pay for your own, potentially weeks-long, recovery. Then be sure to come back before you inconvenience us terribly with your UNPAID leave. I guess that’s what an employee’s life is worth in this country, huh?

    1. Amaranth*

      I think we need to err on the side of too much support, unless someone is blatantly going to large prohibited gatherings or COVID parties, etc. I think its fair to ask for confirmation they got a test if that is corporate policy (though not sure if its legal), but the main focus for OP seems to be that its disrupting work flow. If other people depend on the employee’s job getting done to do their own, then they need to figure out a backup plan, either WFH or someone getting cross-trained — which is a good idea regardless.

  43. agnes*

    This is a situation we had in our own workplace. There’s always someone who pushes the margin. We have a couple that works for us (they don’t work in the same department) and honestly they have been out probably more about 6 weeks each in the past six months for possible covid exposures-“we had friends over and one is now symptomatic” We offer paid leave while people are waiting for test results so they haven’t had to use any of their own leave and they continue to get paid by the company.

    We have a reliable source that will turns tests around in 24-48 hours, but they figured out that if they go on their own to a different place to get tested , the test returns take longer (sometimes up to 8-9 days) and they can’t then get a second test from our source until the first test is processed.

    Because of this, we just updated our policy to limit the amount of company paid leave you get for waiting for test results if you go somewhere other than our testing source. If you are positive, then yes, the company will pay while you recover, no matter how long it takes, but you only get 48 hours of paid leave to be out for “suspicion” of covid while waiting for test results from any other provider. After that you are on your own time. This has finally reined in these two and they now use our testing source and at least aren’t out quite so much. It’s exhausting and frankly disappointing to see people abuse a system that the company put together in good faith to help employees.

    1. agnes*

      and no their jobs cannot be done from home. Can’t say more due to anonymity issues, but everyone who can WFH in our organization is doing so. Think jobs like landscaping, construction, road paving, truck drivers….

  44. NotAnotherTeenLibrarian*

    I’m reading this on the wrong day. I am just back in building after a 14 day quarantine. My kids were exposed at day care. My kids go to daycare because my job depends on me being in building. My family’s biggest risk is the fact that my kids go to daycare and I work in a building that is open to the public. It’s circular for me. If all of a sudden I was asked to not do the 2 or 3 other things we do outside of work (see grandparents who are isolating, go to swim lessons once a week) I would be livid. I see this isn’t the same as Sam’s situation, but going into work is a huge risk in its self, and if Sam staying at home due to bad luck or exposure for things that are outside work time, maybe it’s time to see if he can work for home.

    Sorry if I seem angry- I just know my biggest risks are due to the fact I have to go to work, and our first exposure after cancelling trips this summer, staying home, mask wearing outside the home all the time, opening our bubble to a few family members who are as isolated as we are, is because my kids needed daycare so I could work. Maybe it isn’t the same, but exposure at work or school or day care is more likely than a weekend one off for most people.

  45. Haha Lala*

    I’m a bit late on this, but a few things jump out at me.
    Current CDC guidelines don’t require a negative test to return to work or being around others.
    If the test comes back negative, but Sam is within the isolation period from the original exposure, they still shouldn’t be around other people until after the isolation period is over. If the company is asking them to return to work before that, the company is being negligent. If Sam does test positive, a negative test still isn’t required per CDC guidelines, just a set period of time being symptom free.

    My partner tested positive early this summer, but he never had symptoms. He had to stay home for 2 weeks before returning to his office. I tested negative a few days after his diagnosis, and also never developed symptoms, but I actually had to isolate for a longer time, since the incubation period can be so long.

    Also, if the office is wearing masks and social distancing, then it wouldn’t be considered a positive exposure between employees, even if one of them were to test positive. That’s assuming people are actually wearing masks correctly, washing their hands, etc, so that might be too big of an assumption for most offices… I’m sure people would still want to know if a coworker tests positive, but you shouldn’t have to worry about one positive Covid test shutting down the whole office.

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