Keep COVID From Costing Your Business

COVID doesn’t just cost the people who are sick. Workplace illness is expensive for employers, too.

Kim Noble
Cartoon of man sitting in office

Being sick costs money. As my colleague recently wrote in “COVID Could Cost You,” that’s yet another big reason for people to try to avoid getting the virus. But COVID doesn’t just cost the people who are sick. It costs their employers too.

Direct Medical Costs

Over half of US workers are covered by self-insured employer health plans. In those plans, the employer pays some if not most of the medical costs of the people who are insured. If those people have to go to the hospital or need expensive antibody treatment, then the employers may be on the hook for the bills. For complex hospitalized cases, these costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Loss of Productivity

Anyone who works with a team knows that having a team member unexpectedly out with COVID for a week or more is an inconvenience, at the very least. Depending on the sick person’s role, it might even bring some activities to a grinding halt. For employers, that means a loss of productivity.

But the problem is bigger than one worker — or even one team. One of COVID’s more sinister qualities is that people are contagious before they show symptoms. So in the days before that worker called out sick, they may have infected their colleagues, too. Depending on how big the outbreak gets, it can easily cripple whole departments or workplaces.

During the first two years of the pandemic, worker absences increased 50%. And outbreaks caused restaurants, small shops, and giant factories (among other businesses) to close or severely reduce operations while there were not enough staff to manage critical tasks. When that happens to a business, the financial losses can be tremendous and long-lasting.

Leave & Replacement Costs

In addition to productivity loss, worker absences also mean higher expenses for a business.There’s the cost of sick leave for the worker who’s out. And, in many service industry jobs (like restaurants, retail, and transportation), the work still must be done — so there’s the cost of paying a replacement, as well.

Investing to Limit Future Costs

The impacts of COVID are fewer today. Most employers would cite inflation, supply chain disruptions, or changes in customer demand as more critical issues now. But let’s not forget the lessons we learned, lest we be doomed to repeat them someday. I spoke with a handful of business owners, managers, and HR reps about their takeaways and how they would be better prepared to limit costs of another pandemic.

  • Invest in tech training for your employees, so an unplanned transition to remote work could be a smoother one.

  • Keep current on online ordering and delivery options (even if your business model is mostly brick and mortar) so you’re better prepared to pivot if the need arises.

  • Stay connected to the broader business community. You will only reap the benefits of emergency funding programs that you know about. 

  • Make your workplace as healthy an environment as you can. Open office plans were all the rage for a while, but they promote transmission of airborne illnesses (including everyday ones like colds and the flu). Make sure your building’s HVAC system is tuned up regularly and has good filtration. Bring in as much clean outdoor air as you can, and use portable air cleaners when you need to.

  • Offer adequate sick time. Not only does it encourage employees not to bring and spread their illness around the store, but studies also show those with paid sick leave are more likely to seek out preventative care. A healthy workforce is more productive.

  • Stay alert to potential supply-chain disruptions. Consider your options (e.g., stock up, maintain a list of back-up suppliers, or use alternative goods or materials) so you can pivot quickly.

  • Hold on to your COVID safety protocols, and document what worked and what didn’t. Make recommendations to your future selves in a similar situation. And then follow through.

Are you a business owner or manager? What costs has your company borne, and what lessons have you taken from the company’s pandemic experience? Tell us about it by emailing your story to me at or by sharing it on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.