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Study: Businesses Might Not Be Able to Cope with Flu Season

By Beth Mirza  9/10/2009
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HR professionals foresee trouble in the fall 2009 flu season, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health. Two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey say they will have “severe” problems keeping their businesses open during an outbreak of H1N1 (swine) flu.

Polling of 1,067 HR professionals at small (20-99 employees), medium (100-500 employees) and large (more than 500 employees) businesses took place June 16-Aug. 12, 2009.

Employees will face difficulties, as well: Only 35 percent of businesses said they offer paid leave that would allow employees to take care of sick family members, and 21 percent will allow paid time off to care for children if schools or day care facilities were closed.

“Businesses need to start planning how to adjust their operations to account for greater absenteeism and to slow the spread of H1N1 in the workplace,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Eighty-four percent of firms are concerned that an outbreak of H1N1 flu, more widespread and severe than the outbreak in spring 2009, will hurt their business. Only one-third of respondents said they could sustain their business without severe operational problems if half their workforce were absent for two weeks because of H1N1 flu.

Small businesses might have an advantage over large ones. More small businesses (40 percent) than large businesses (27 percent) believe they would be able to avoid having severe operational problems with half of their workforce absent for two weeks. Twenty-seven percent of small businesses say they could avoid such problems for a month, compared to 18 percent of large businesses.

Leave Policies Lacking

If workers don’t get sick, their children might. As schools went back into session across the country, the number of H1N1 flu cases was expected to grow. While 74 percent of responding businesses offer paid sick leave for at least some employees, just over a third offer paid leave for employees to care for sick family members, and a fifth allow paid time off to care for children if schools or day care centers close.

“A critical issue will be that employees who must take care of children if they are sick or if schools and day cares close this fall may face financial troubles. Flexibility from employers can help,” Blendon said.

About one in 10 businesses responding to the survey made changes to their employee policies after the spring 2009 emergence of the H1N1 flu, researchers found. But not many more employers are expected to make changes: Only 6 percent of those who do not offer sick leave expect that they will begin offering it if there is a serious outbreak. Eighteen percent of businesses offering sick leave expect that they would increase the number of employees eligible for such leave, and 29 percent expect they would extend the amount of sick leave employees can take if there was a serious outbreak.

Thomas Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a news conference that normally healthy adults are discouraged from going to the doctor if they get the flu, since government officials expect doctors to be very busy treating children and adults with chronic health diseases who have the flu. However, 43 percent of the businesses that offer sick leave require a doctor’s note to take that leave, and more than two-thirds of businesses that offer sick leave (69 percent) require a doctor’s note to return to work after contagious illnesses. Only 10 percent of each of those groups say they might drop those requirements in the event of an outbreak.

Social Distancing Difficult

HR professionals told researchers that social distancing practices—strategies that limit contact among workers or between workers and customers—would be difficult but doable. Fifty-nine percent say they could stagger shifts in order to increase distances between people at the business site and on mass transit for one or two weeks. Forty-two percent could stagger shifts for more than four weeks. Fewer businesses could rearrange their workspace to reduce contact between employees (44 percent) or between employees and customers (42 percent) for one or two weeks.

More Information Needed

Businesses need more information on how to keep their operations running and their employees healthy, respondents told the researchers. They called for information on keeping employees safe (77 percent), coping with a reduced workforce (59 percent) and planning for supply interruptions (59 percent):

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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