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Flu Season Turns Corner, But Challenges Remain

Source: United Benefit Advisors

Although the height of the flu season looks to be waning, employers can expect the effects of the annual wave of sickness among the U.S. workforce to linger for a few more months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently predicted that high flu activity will hang around for a few more weeks and then start to drop in late February or early March, except in the West, where the flu arrived later this year, according to USA TODAY.

“We’re not at the end but we’re nearing the end,” said Michael Jhung, an epidemiologist with the CDC.

This year’s bout of flu hit the East in December, nearly a month earlier than usual, the CDC reported. That quick start to the flu season means the virus is already running its course in most areas of the country.

The early emergence and ferocity of this year’s outbreaks (CDC reported that this year’s virus is sparking more severe symptoms than in past years) has rekindled the debate over mandated paid sick time for employees.

The topic is especially hot in New York City, which is pondering a sick-time ordinance under the shadow of a tight municipal election, according to The Associated Press. Two likely mayoral candidates are pressing for the City Council to decide on the measure, which has languished for nearly three years.

While the topic makes for good politics, many employers worry that mandates on employee sick time could be devastating to their businesses. Michael Sinensky, who saw four of his seven bars shut down after Hurricane Sandy, told the AP that his business simply can’t afford “additional social initiatives.”

Many employers, though, are starting to re-evaluate the public health benefit of containing diseases compared with short-term costs of paid sick leave, said John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Right now, where companies’ incentives lie is butting right up against this concern over people coming into the workplace, infecting others and bringing productivity of a whole company down,” Challenger told the AP.

For now, an employer’s best defense against a flu-ridden workforce is to protect employees before they fall ill, according to online posts by Smart HR Manager and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which cite some tips that businesses can implement to stave off productivity-killing outbreaks:

  • Make flu vaccination a priority. It might be too late to help much this season, but employers can start making plans now to prepare for next year.
  • Be prepared to educate employees about the importance of vaccinations and ways to stay healthy, such as regular hand-washing with soap.
  • Find out what your employees want and expect from an immunization program.
  • Be flexible in allowing employees to go off-site to get flu vaccines.
  • Encourage workers to not share phones, computers or equipment unless absolutely necessary.
  • Keep common areas in the office clean.