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posted: 12/22/2013 6:39 AM

Work Advice: Boss' plan for flu vaccine comes with a sting

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Q: Flu season is upon us, and I've offered my 10-person staff the flu vaccine, dispensed at our office by a registered nurse. The vaccine will be provided during normal working hours at no cost to employees.

A few have declined with excuses that they are afraid of needles or "never get sick." The staff is in physically close contact, and the work that we do passes among staff members throughout the day.

I am 67 and have a number of ailments that would be exacerbated by my getting the flu. I also am the project lead for two urgent contracts that involve the entire staff's participation.

Any staff members who won't get the vaccine at the office or at their doctor (nasal spray is OK) will be required to wear disposable gloves and a mask at work for the whole season.

Am I unreasonable? Is there a Virginia employment regulation that would prevent me from implementing this rule?

A: In a medical facility charged with protecting public health, having non-vaccinated staff members wear masks and gloves might make sense. But your letter suggests that this is not a medical office and that your primary concern is your own health. While I sympathize with your vulnerability and realize your team can ill afford to lose you, imposing special dress requirements on workers who refuse a medical procedure seems intrusive. It is also potentially actionable if those employees declined the vaccine for religious or medical reasons, or consider being subject to a special dress code a form of discrimination, according to Declan Leonard of employment law firm Berenzweig Leonard. Finally, even if everyone were vaccinated, you could still fall prey to a bug not blocked by the vaccine.

The good news is, your plan to sponsor free vaccinations at the office is both legal and -- according to federal guidelines -- the best way to protect workers during flu season.

If you're afraid that doesn't go far enough, you might also post reminders about preventing flu through good hygiene; deck the halls with tissues, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes; urge sniffily, feverish workers to stay home; and consider sharing electronic files and holding conference calls, instead of passing papers and sneezes around a crowded meeting room.

But rather than making your office look like a hazmat site, I think it would be more reasonable to don your own protective gear and make extras available to those who want them. Just don't be surprised if you come in to find a flock of inflated rubber-glove turkeys nesting on your desk.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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