The Flu is Coming to Work, too

September 09, 2009 | The Kansas City Star |  Link to article

With the approach of another flu season, employers' concerns grow from too many workers calling in sick to too many workers coming in sick.

When that happens in a workplace, voila: A petri dish for the spread of disease.

This year, revved-up fears about a possible H1N1 epidemic are the latest in an annual ritual in which we're told to get a flu shot.

And, oh yes, cover your cough.

Clearly, it's important to practice healthy behaviors and try to prevent the communication of communicable diseases. Perhaps those "Wash your hands" posters on restroom stall doors really do make a difference.

But, given the state of many sick-day policies - or more important, the lack thereof - any flu virus that wants to run rampant in a workplace is likely to have free rein.

The reality is that many workers will come to work sick because they can't afford not to.

According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, more than half of private-sector workers have no paid sick days on the job.

That percentage leaps higher among the workers who serve your food or change your hotel bed linen. Eight-six percent of those low-wage workers in America have no paid sick days.

These hourly workers need their hourly pay, which they don't get if they stay home.

Many salaried workers with employee benefit plans aren't all that eager to nurse an illness at home, either. They may have paid sick days, but those pale in comparison to peer pressure.

In big-company, downsized workplaces, where job cuts are real or imagined threats, it's a rare employee who doesn't worry about missing work.

In other workplaces, which have replaced sick days with paid-time-off policies, there's a natural reluctance by workers to use their days off being sick instead of using the time off for planned fun.

It's unlikely that even the threat of a virulent flu will spark wholesale changes in workplace policies. A survey reported in June by Mercer said two in five employers have no special policy in place in the event of an H1N1 epidemic.

What we're probably going to be left with is the hope and expectation that people use common sense.

That means encouraging sick workers to stay home.

It means sending sick workers home.

It means, if possible, allowing workers to work from home.

And, ideally, it means reminding managers to not pressure workers to work while sick.


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