POLL QUESTION

What should businesses do to soften effects of a flu epidemic?

Posted Jan. 11, 2013, at 6:11 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — It’s the time of year for runny noses, fevers and sore throats — otherwise known as flu season. But this year, the flu is hitting especially hard and has the potential to severely hamstring businesses that suffer an outbreak among their employees.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that flu outbreaks cost employers as much as $10.4 billion a year in the direct expense of hospital and outpatient visits. That number doesn’t include the cost of lost productivity.

Boston has declared a state of emergency in the face of the outbreak. Portland on Thursday said it is offering free flu vaccinations in an effort to ward off the virus.

Businesses should be communicating with employees about the best ways to protect against the flu, which include getting vaccinated, washing hands often and covering the mouth with the crook of the elbow, according to Rick Dacri, a human resources consultant based in Kennebunkport.

“Prevention is the key to this from the management perspective,” Dacri said.

L.L. Bean hosted an in-house flu clinic last fall in which 2,500 employees were vaccinated for free, according to Carolyn Beem, a company spokeswoman.

“We’re not seeing a high impact [from the flu],” she said. “It’s not rampant. We’re seeing individual cases here and there, but that’s probably because so many people took part in the flu clinic.”

For some larger businesses, it makes sense to plan an in-house flu vaccination clinic, Dacri said. But for smaller companies, educating employees and encouraging healthy habits will be key, he said.

In addition, businesses need to make sure their human resource policies that govern sick time are clear and don’t encourage people to come to work sick, which risks infecting the rest of the workforce and compounding the lost productivity from potential absenteeism.

Despite this common-sense precaution, Dacri continues to see cases where sick employees keep coming to work because they are scared of being penalized.

“Employers need to re-look at their attendance policies, their medical leave policies, to make sure that it isn’t set up in such a way that an employee who is sick who shouldn’t be at work comes in because of the fear of losing their jobs,” Dacri said.

One such employee of an auto parts store in Westbrook, who preferred to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation from her employer, said her employer doesn’t care if she’s sick. They would fire her if she didn’t show up for work.

The employee, a single mom with two young children, already has missed four days in the last 3½ months because she and her two children all got the norovirus at different times. She then suffered a bout of viral bronchitis, which she’s just recovering from, that forced her to miss another day at work.

“I’m already on written warning,” she said. “So I come to work sick. Absolutely, I do. Because if I don’t, I’d lose my job.”

She and her children haven’t got the flu yet, but she’s bracing herself for when one of her children brings it home from school. And if that happens, she says she doesn’t have any family in the area to help her out.

“I’ve got two children, it’s winter and there’s a major outbreak,” she said. “We’ve been pretty lucky so far, but our luck is going to run out sooner rather than later.”

She continued: “My kids come first. If I lose my job, I lose my job. I think it’s ridiculous that during winter in Maine with an outbreak, they don’t bend at all. They won’t make exceptions, they won’t take into consideration the circumstances. It’s definitely an employers’ world out there.”

“I think it’s critical to put some flexibility in those policies so you encourage workers to stay home without penalties,” Dacri said.

For information on how businesses should prepare for flu season, visit the CDC’s information page for businesses and employers.

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