Severe Flu Season Raises Questions for HR

By Bill Leonard Jan 17, 2013
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The 2012-2013 flu season has hit early and hard. The severity of the flu outbreak has left many employers pondering if their organizations’ health and attendance policies are helping or hampering their efforts to keep the flu from spreading.

“Just listening to the HR executives that I work with on a daily basis, there seems to be a lot of confusion [as to] how to handle the flu outbreak right now,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas. “Many of the incentives and policies that businesses have to encourage and reward good attendance can be counterproductive when you have a severe flu outbreak like this year.”

Some employers have implemented policies that reward employees for a number of days without an absence or offer employees banks of paid leave that don’t differentiate between sick, vacation or personal days.

“Having a bank of paid leave probably makes good sense when an employer creates the policy and can certainly cut costs,” Challenger said. “But some people have told me that they come to work sick because they want to save their time off for vacation or for long weekends. So my advice to HR people is to examine your company’s attendance policy and determine if it encourages or discourages employees from taking time off when they are sick. I believe this year’s flu season is making more employers think about these policies more carefully.”

Early Start to Flu Season

The season began nearly a month earlier than usual when dozens of flu cases in several states were reported in late November and early December 2012. The number of reported cases during the last five weeks of 2012 was more in line with the number seen during the peak of typical flu season, which normally runs from mid-January until mid-February or early March, according to officials with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

In addition, the influenza outbreak appears to be one of the most severe in the past 10 years. The CDC reported on Jan. 11, 2012, that 24 states and New York City have a high level of flu-like illnesses. In addition, the CDC reported that 47 states were experiencing widespread influenza activity. The state of New York and the city of Boston have declared medical states of emergency to deal with the outbreak.

“The bottom line—it’s flu season. Most of the country is seeing or has seen a lot of flu and this may continue for a number of weeks,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, during a recent media briefing. “During the past decades, we have seen an average of about 12 consecutive weeks, or three months of influenza cases being elevated. As we often say, the only thing predictable about flu is that it’s unpredictable.”

As with any flu season, people who should stay home sick will instead head for the office. Strong work ethics and traditions of working under any condition may be the reasons some people choose to go to work sick, but there are many others who simply can’t afford a day without pay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly 41.7 million workers—approximately one-third of the U.S. workforce—do not have paid sick leave.

While the BLS data show that nearly 80 percent of full-time employees do have paid sick leave, only 25 percent of part-time workers are offered paid sick days. Self-employed workers and most contract workers do not have paid-leave benefits.

For employers scrambling to keep their workplaces healthy, the CDC provides a guideline for preventing the flu on its website. Items 1 and 2 on the CDC list are “avoid close contact” and “stay at home when you are sick.” Both those suggestions are hard to avoid if someone feels that he or she needs to be at work.

“It’s part of the economic situation right now, because many people may think their job is on the line if they miss a day of work,” said Challenger. “I think employers need to address these fears and communicate the importance that people stay home if they’re sick.”

Lost Productivity

The impact of a severe flu season on the economy can be costly. A study released in 2012 by Walgreens found that 100 million workdays and approximately $7 billion in wages were lost during the 2010-2011 flu season. Students throughout the country lost 32 million school days, the study found. Another report by the CDC estimates that a typical flu season costs U.S. employers $10.4 billion in hospitalization and outpatient costs. These estimated costs don’t take into account losses in productivity that occur when employees report to work sick and spread the illness to co-workers.

“You can expect the numbers in lost work days and wages to be possibly more elevated this year because the flu season started earlier and seems to be more intense than previous years,” said Jim Cohn, a spokesperson for Walgreens. “What we are seeing is a significant number of flu cases at Walgreens’ in-store clinics and at the employer-based health clinics.”

Walgreens has partnered with 370 employers throughout the U.S. to operate worksite health clinics. Cohn says the activity related to the flu or flu-like symptoms at these clinics is higher than it was during the past three or four years.

“Every flu season is different and unpredictable, but this year we’re seeing some elevated numbers, and demand for flu vaccine is much higher than previous years,” Cohn said. “We’ve experienced some spot shortages, but our pharmacies have been able to adjust quickly and get the vaccine to where it’s needed.”

Paying for or subsidizing the cost of flu shots is one of the best benefits employers can provide during flu season, according to sources for this article. At a minimum, employers should encourage their employees to get a flu shot and possibly provide time off so workers can visit a doctor’s office or local clinic to get the vaccine.

Help Workers Stay Home if Sick

Employers should actively encourage their employees to take time off if they are sick. For many jobs, telecommuting is now a viable option, so any employer that doesn’t have a telecommuting policy in place is behind the time, according to Challenger. Businesses that use a lot of temporary and contract workers should also consider what attendance policies are in place for these employees because they could easily spread the flu if they feel compelled to come to work.

Unfortunately, many of the jobs that don’t provide paid time off tend to be in the retail or food service sectors, which means employees who come to work sick are exposing customers to illness.

“Businesses can get hit hard because not only do employees get sick, but their customers do, too,” Challenger said. “And do businesses really want to run the risk of losing customers that way?”

Attitudes about missing work due to illness are starting to shift some, sources say. Many employers are beginning to ask the right questions about how they can support employees when they are sick or have a sick child, Challenger says. In addition, employers have begun providing items like hand sanitizer, latex gloves and in some cases surgical masks to employees who ask for them.

“Right now, what’s happening is definitely reactive to the current situation, but employers are responding to employee demands to feel more secure and healthy at work,” Challenger said. “But I think we are really on the edge of sea change, and employers are definitely moving toward creating an atmosphere and culture that encourages employees to take time off work if they are sick, and that’s a good thing.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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