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For Some Employers, H1N1 Vaccination Means Business as Usual

By Beth Mirza  8/26/2009
 

In some industries where the only way to make money is to be in the office or on the job site, employers will offer both seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccines to make sure employees stay healthy and productive, say HR professionals.

Susan Clarke, senior manager of compensation and benefits for Paul Hastings, said the law firm will offer seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccinations to all of its 2,300 employees.

“We have a low tolerance for people being out of work,” Clarke said. An attorney who is out of work for a week sick with the flu doesn’t generate any income for the firm, she said.

To make doubly sure employees stay healthy, the firm will offer the vaccinations to contract and temporary workers and the vendors who maintain the copiers and repair the telephones as well, Clarke said. 

Before making the vaccinations available, Clarke said the firm will distribute information on the vaccines and articles from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about good hand-washing techniques and flu prevention.

“[Vaccination] is the better business decision. We are public-facing, we travel internationally,” Clarke said. “We have to do this.”

Bonita Martin, HR director of Phoenix Formations, a trade show company based in Cincinnati, agreed. Her employees travel the country to set up trade show booths. If the flu is rampant this fall, those shows will be canceled. To prevent the spread of the disease and to keep employees healthy, her company will offer seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccinations.

“We literally see hundreds of people,” Martin said. She’s working with a health care vendor who will obtain and administer the shots. “As soon as [H1N1 vaccine] is available, we’ll get it.”

As much as some employers may want to provide the H1N1 shots, they may have to stand in line while the government makes sure pregnant women, caretakers of young children and health care workers receive the first doses. These groups, along with adults age 25-64 with chronic health conditions and compromised immunity, are more susceptible to the new strain of flu.

The vaccine is undergoing clinical trials and may not be ready until mid to late October.

Some employers are opting to distribute information only and are advising their employees to talk to a doctor about whether they should receive the shots.

“We are going to distribute a gazillion bottles of hand sanitizer,” said Peter Ronza, compensation and benefits manager for the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. The school will offer a flu shot clinic for students and encourage employees to ask their doctors about the vaccines.

Tyneshia Farmer, MBA, PHR, CWPC, benefits and employee wellness director for a major nonprofit association, said her organization has stopped providing seasonal flu shots and will not provide the H1N1 shots either.

“We decided not [to offer the vaccine] due to not having enough vaccine available, not knowing the side effects and the fact that some employees think the vaccine causes the flu,” Farmer said.

While vaccines do not lead to contracting the flu, some people develop mild flu-like symptoms after receiving a flu shot. Also, seasonal flu vaccines are made to immunize recipients against only a handful of flu strains; someone who comes down with the flu even though he received a flu shot may have been infected by a virus that was not covered in that season’s vaccine.

“Instead we’re going to focus on overall employee wellness, encouraging people to stay home if they are sick, utilize their paid time off and seek out a physician’s advice,” Farmer said. “That way we are not the deciding factor” in whether or not employees receive a flu shot.

Liability was among the factors that led clients of HR consultant Theresa Perry to decide not to offer the shots. The lack of information on possible side effects worried the business leaders, Perry said.

“We researched it and thought maybe it’s too new to administer on site,” Perry said. “If the employees really want it, they can go” to their regular doctor.

Jeremy Stephenson, an attorney with Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofolo LLP in Charlotte, N.C., said he is not aware of any of his clients who are offering the vaccine.

Instead, Stephenson said, he would advise employers to “do the things you can do first,” such as making sure the workplace is clean and that sick leave policies are flexible enough for ill workers to stay home. If an employee comes to work and appears to have the symptoms of H1N1 flu, send him home, he said.

“But don’t send employees to the doctor to be tested for H1N1 flu; that brings up [Americans with Disabilities Act] implications,” Stephenson warned. (Read here for answers to legal questions related to H1N1 flu.)

Uncle Sam Wants You to Help

The federal government is pushing flu vaccinations, asking employers to encourage their employees to receive seasonal flu and H1N1 flu shots.

“The president has mobilized the federal government to get America prepared,” said U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in a press statement. “But government can’t do it alone. For this effort to be successful, we need the business community to do its part.”

Employers also are asked to allow sick workers to stay home and not pressure them to report to work if they are ill. People infected with the flu virus can spread it from before they feel sick until five to seven days after the onset of symptoms. The government also is asking employers to allow workers to stay home with family members who may be ill or with children whose schools have closed.

“One of the most important things that employers can do is make sure their human resources and leave policies are flexible and follow public health guidance,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “If employees are sick, they need to be encouraged to stay home. If people begin to experience flu-like symptoms at work, they should be sent home and possibly encouraged to seek medical treatment.”

Federal guidelines also suggest employers cancel nonessential face-to-face meetings and travel, space employees farther apart, and allow employees who are at higher risk for flu complications to work from home or stay home if the flu is severe.

Despite all the hand sanitizer, videoconferencing and cough etiquette, employees may still come down with H1N1 flu. Two workers in Sonya Berryman’s Atlanta office suffered through H1N1 flu in spring 2009 and recovered shortly thereafter, said Berryman, vice president of insurance services for Palomar Insurance Corp.

“Even with the Purell and the advice to stay home if sick, we still need to offer the vaccine,” Berryman said. “I asked several doctors, and they said it was a good idea.”

Stay Flu Free

Dr. Mary Andrawais with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists participated in a SHRM Online webcast and offered these tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of flu in the workplace:

  • Analyze yourself: Do I feel feverish, have a sore throat, am I coughing or achy, or do I feel ill? If so, stay home, notify your supervisor and contact your doctor.
  • Follow cough and sneeze etiquette: cover your cough and sneeze with a tissue and then throw it away. Or use your elbow or shoulder.
  • Wash your hands for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday—slowly.
  • Use hand sanitizer of at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • The use of facemasks and respirators is not recommended. But if your work puts you in contact with someone who is infected with the flu, stay six feet away from him, be brief, ask the ill person to follow cough and sneeze etiquette, wash your hands and wear a mask.
  • Practice social distancing to prevent contact with people who might be infected and not know it yet. Don’t shake hands, stay away from crowded areas, spread out in your offices and cubicles. Use e-mail and phones for conversations. Stagger shifts.
  • Employers should provide workers with written guidance on what the flu is and how to avoid it, and distribute hand sanitizer.

For more tips, visit http://www.flu.gov/plan/workplaceplanning/guidance.html.

 Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News and online editor/manager for SHRM. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

 

 

 

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