Generally, employers are within their rights to send sick workers...

Generally, employers are within their rights to send sick workers home. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Dan Grytsku

The flu cost U.S. employers over $21 billion in lost productivity this past flu season, according to an estimate from Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

While it’s not clear yet how bad this season will be, employers are encouraged to take precautionary measures to help reduce the chances of the flu spreading in the workplace.

“It was a particularly bad flu season last year,” says Andrew Challenger, vice president of the Chicago-based outplacement and executive coaching firm. “We don’t have too much of an indication of what this flu season is going to look like right now, but employers should take heed.”

He estimates that if the United States sees the same levels of flu as last season, employers' losses from sick days could be higher because wages have increased since last year as firms strive to remain competitive.

For smaller firms, influenza can be especially damaging considering they have fewer employees to begin with and even a few missing could impact productivity, says Challenger.

Last flu season was particularly severe, with more than 900,000 people hospitalized and more than 80,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Daniel Jernigan, director of CDC’s influenza division, said at a September news conference it’s too early to know how this season will pan out, but he encouraged people to get the flu vaccine.

ClearVision Optical, a Hauppauge-based designer and distributor of eyewear, had Rite Aid staff come in and administer flu shots in mid-September, says senior talent leader Jennifer Trakhtenberg, noting at least 30 employees out of about 130 total received the shot. 

She says the firm has wall-mounted hand sanitizers throughout the building and also provides Clorox wipes for each department.

It also encourages employees to take their paid time off if they’re sick, says Trakhtenberg.

If an employee appears to have the flu or a severe cold, it’s OK to send them home, says Doug Rowe, a labor and employment law partner at Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman in East Meadow.

It’s best to have a sick-leave policy that states the employers can do this at their discretion, he says. Employers should apply the policy consistently and in a non-discriminatory manner, he says.

If you send workers home, always abide by wage and hour laws; different rules apply depending on whether an employee is non-exempt (hourly) or exempt, says Rowe. Last flu season, he says, he got many calls from employers who had workers impacted by the flu and had questions about how to pay them.

Going forward, educate employees early on about flu prevention techniques, advises Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist at NSF International, a global public health and safety not-for-profit.

These steps include fully covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing; coughing or sneezing into your arm, not your hand; washing your hands often; disinfecting areas you come into contact with – especially in common areas; and if you’re starting to feel sick, trying to keep your distance from co-workers, she says. 

“Employers have real opportunities to influence the health and wellness of their employees – either through workplace policies and guidelines, providing flu shots or encouraging people to stay home or work from home when they’re sick,” says Yakas.

There's a long flu season ahead. Influenza activity often begins to increase in October and usually peaks between December and February, although activity can last as late as May, according to the CDC.

“People can be contagious before flu symptoms develop, so it is important to practice prevention all the time, not just when you think you might be getting sick or think someone else in the office might be sick,” says Yakas.

Fast Fact:

17 million

Number of workdays U.S. employees miss due to the flu

Source: Centers for Disease Control

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