A 2022 Spotlight on Absence Management Trends

Tasha Patterson@Work

A 2022 Spotlight on Absence Management Trends

By Terri L. Rhodes, CCMP, CLMS, CPDM, MBA, CEO, DMEC

It is fair to assume that the employment disruption we have experienced during the last couple of years will continue in 2022. But with two years of experience under our belts, we should be able to anticipate some of the twists and turns ahead. One common thread amid the uncertainty we have faced is that the role of absence management professionals continues to expand in scope and influence. Take, for example, the increasing number of human resources (HR) professionals on c-suite rosters.

This isn’t surprising considering the influence humans (as resources) have on an employer’s bottom line, especially with ongoing concerns about COVID-19 and its variants, accommodation requests for vaccine mandates and testing, and the increasingly tight employment market.

In addition to burgeoning responsibilities, we see higher visibility for absence professionals’ work and greater emphasis on it — both of which present advantages and challenges in terms of required skills, readiness, and support.

Volatility in the Industry

Absence management professionals are juggling an increasingly heavy load while they face a growing number of open positions created by COVID-19 as well as “the Great Resignation,” which have reduced personnel by 30% or more for some employers. At the same time, absence and disability professionals are addressing an increasing number of accommodation requests and adjusting (and readjusting) plans for employees to return to offices. Meanwhile, changes to paid family medical leaves, parental leaves, and child bonding leaves (and what many call an artificial separation between the two) require constant monitoring and assessment to ensure employees understand their benefits, and that they feel heard and supported.

These issues, along with the following trends outlined below, will influence our collective success in 2022.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) & COVID-19

Navigating the COVID-19 vaccine mandate landscape — and assessing reasonable accommodations — is increasingly difficult. We’ve seen a lot transpire at the federal level only to have it challenged by the U.S. Supreme Court1, which granted another temporary stay of the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). Following that, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) withdrew its enforcement of the ETS. That action most likely makes the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit deciding the merits of the ETS a moot point2.

However, it is not the end of the story when it comes to how employers handle vaccine mandates. Employers can choose to maintain workplace vaccination policies that follow other applicable laws (such as Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act) and monitor state and local requirements, including laws that affect employer vaccination policies in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.

In fact, absence professionals are fielding an increasing number of medical and religious accommodation requests and watching closely as courts weigh in on questions of reasonable accommodation. From a practical perspective, professionals must track vaccine status while keeping an eye on these and other court cases prompted by vaccine mandates as they work to keep offices safe from infectious diseases, such as COVID-19 and its variants, and handle other leave requests.

As we gain resolution on the larger questions around mandates, it will be important to turn our attention to the long-term ramifications of policy workarounds introduced to keep businesses running during the height of the pandemic. How employers handle policies — such as remote work — in the future, and what adjustments they need to make to policies to ensure ADA compliance, will be important considerations to reduce legal risks, according to legal experts during the DMEC Compliance Series webinars.3

Paid Family and Medical Leave

As employers continue to watch what is happening (or not) at the federal level, it is increasingly important to monitor the patchwork of state laws to ensure compliance. In addition to monitoring the laws, and how they interact with employer-sponsored leaves, absence management professionals are considering equity issues in an increasingly difficult hiring environment as they explore the concepts of fair versus equal when evaluating — and communicating — benefits packages for salaried and hourly employees.

Effective communication of benefits and optimizing technology to allow time for personal interventions is a key to success here. Experts advise employers to consider comprehensive communication strategies that appeal to diverse employees and to outline differences in benefits packages so employees understand their complete compensation package and how it aligns with their skills and jobs.

In an increasingly complex environment, it will be important for employers to communicate clearly about all leaves available to employees including state and federal as well as company-sponsored leaves.

Legalized Recreational Marijuana Use & It’s Effect on Employers

We have been talking about the effects of enforcing a drug-free workplace as more states pass recreational marijuana. The challenge is how do you manage workplace drug policies in the midst of popular recreational and medical marijuana laws across the nation and a remote and/or hybrid work environment. This is especially pertinent with support for legalizing marijuana holding at a record high of 68%, according to the November 2021 Gallup poll.4

Tracking the number of states that have approved medical marijuana (36 states along with the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and recreational marijuana (18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia), employers must consider their policies on drug testing (including pre-employment), how they can implement drug policies with employees who work remotely, and the effects any changes will have on worker safety as well as recruitment and retention.5

This complex issue is not new, but it poses greater challenges today as employers struggle to fill positions and an increasing number of employees believe marijuana should be legal.

While most of the discussion focuses on pre-employment drug testing, which was intended to improve workplace safety, HR professionals are reevaluating how they accomplish that goal and questioning whether drug testing in its traditional form has outlived its purpose.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

The ways in which employers demonstrate their commitment to DEI will become increasingly important in 2022, as employees have greater options for work, due to the Great Resignation. It’s heartening to see some employers reassessing policies to ensure they create and foster environments that support DEI, but there is a lot of work to be done.

DEI includes issues like pay equity and pay transparency for salary as well as benefits and extends to questions about exempt and non-exempt employees. Described as “the missing link” in a recent article6, salary reflects how much an organization values an employee’s contributions or at least that is how it is perceived. And while I see progress with employers reassessing their benefit plans — from covering medical procedures like gender reassignment surgeries to what accommodations are made for gender-neutral employees — data still shows huge discrepancies in earnings.

Employee Experience

A growing number of people believe the traditional office environment will soon be a relic for employers that recognize how valuable flexibility is as a recruitment and retention tool. In fact, 76% of people who participated in a recent survey7 said they might leave their jobs if working from home didn’t become a permanent option.

The other major influence on resignations is a belief that employers were not empathetic to employee experiences. So, how do you enrich your employees’ experiences? Employers are using benefits (from flexible workplaces to a la carte benefit options and education reimbursement) to differentiate themselves with employees, and we are hearing a lot about employee well-being benefits that might be able to stall the so-called Great Resignation8. This is easier said than done for some who struggle to relinquish the control that employers have historically had over when, where, and how employees work. And it’s a discussion that is as much about culture as it is about operations.

I’ll delve into these trends in the months ahead and plan to engage DMEC members throughout the year to learn about successful approaches, challenges, and helpful resources. Please share your thoughts on social media and in DMECommunities, our exclusive members-only online community groups, and let us know which of these five trends resonates and what you’d like to see covered in each article.

While this year promises to be challenging, DMEC has a comprehensive package of resources to guide and support you. We celebrate our 30th anniversary this year, and as we review our successes, we recognize the value and power of our tightknit community and know that when we will come through this difficult time together, we will be stronger and more successful.


  1. U.S. Supreme Court Puts OSHA COVID-19 Vaccine-Or-Test ETS Back on Ice. Jan. 14, 2022. Retrieved from http://dmec.org/2022/01/14/u-s-supreme-court-puts-osha-covid-19-vaccine-or-test-ets-back-on-ice/
  2. OSHA Withdraws Vaccine-Or-Test Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19. Jan. 27, 2022. Retrieved from http://dmec.org/2022/01/27/osha-withdraws-vaccine-or-test-emergency-temporary-standard-for-covid-19/
  3. Webinar Recordings: Compliance Update Series. October 2021. Retrieved from http://dmec.org/resources/webinar-archives/
  4. Support for Legal Marijuana Holds at Record High of 68%. Nov. 4, 2021. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/356939/support-legal-marijuana-holds-record-high.aspx
  5. National Conference of State Legislatures. State Medical Cannabis Laws. Jan. 4, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-medical-marijuana-laws.aspx
  6. Peralta, P. The Missing Link: Pay Transparency is Critical to DEI Initiatives. EBN. Nov. 19, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/pay-transparency-is-critical-to-dei-initiatives
  7. Johnson Hess, A. The Great Reimagination of Work’: Why 50% of Workers Want to Make a Career Change. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/12/why-50percent-of-workers-want-to-make-a-career-change-new-survey.html
  8. Meister, J. Top Ten HR Trends for the 2022 Workplace. Forbes. Jan. 5, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2022/01/05/top-ten-hr-trends-for-the-2022-workplace/?sh=472a4daf3006