One month into the year, and already, Signs Unleashed of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has had three people out sick.
For the 17-employee, family-owned company, it's a big problem, especially when workers are ill for days, said Vice President Nick Ryder. For every person who's out, that's more to do for employees who are working.
"It's a fine line," he said. "You want people to come in healthy, but everyone has to pull their own load."
Influenza cases have risen sharply across the nation and remains widespread in 49 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The severe flu season is on track to be as bad the 2014-15 outbreak that caused an estimated 56,000 deaths, federal health officials said.
The virus has taken a toll on schools, nursing homes and health-care facilities. But, it also is costing businesses billions of dollars.
This year, as an aggressive flu strain, H3N2, goes around and with the flu season yet to peak, employers — and employees — are facing a difficult dilemma: What do you do when folks just don't feel well?
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Employees who work when they are sick only exacerbate the problem.
"Its a challenge that all small businesses face — and large companies, too," Ryder said.
Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment consulting firm, estimates the flu virus will cause a million adults to miss at least four, eight-hour shifts this year. At an average hourly wage of $26.63, the firm said that works out to about $9.4 billion in lost productivity nationwide.
That's considerably more than in 2014, when the firm estimated the loss to sickness at $7 billion.
"Sick workers may think they are doing the right thing by ‘toughing it out’ and coming into work when they feel ill," said Andrew Challenger, vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But "they are only likely to spread their illness, potentially further interrupting optimum business operations."
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What can employers do?
Sherri McDaniel, CEO of a Livonia, Mich.-based human resources consulting company, said only one employee at her firm has called in sick with the flu — so far.
"But I've worked for employers who are suffering from quite a bit more pain," she added. "As an HR consultant, I go into multiple employers, and just about every one over the last three weeks has had individuals running around coughing, sneezing and looking very ill."
She said that in her view, this flu season has been especially difficult.
Among her suggestions for companies: Invest in free flu shots for workers at the office, promote healthy employee lifestyles, encourage regular physician visits, limit meetings, swab shared work surfaces with alcohol wipes and tell sick people to stay home.
"Almost everything that we do today, we can do by phone and computer," McDaniel said. "As part of your preparation, what you can do for employees is encourage those projects that can be done at home by telecommuting."
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When sick employees are out, it costs businesses money; but, ultimately, it may save companies more than if those workers are in the office.
"If you keep them home and knock it down in the first round when it's only one or two employees, you don't suffer 10 or 20 sick employees later," McDaniel said. "To me, that's the key. You have to keep the germs from spreading."
Tips for employers
• Increase shifts to reduce the number of people working in the office at one time.
• Limit meetings by holding conference calls to prevent the spread of illnesses.
• Allow more telecommuting and employees to work from home.
• Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.
• Institute flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for a sick child.
• Use no-touch trash cans, provide hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes.
• Encourage employees to frequently wash hands, avoid handshakes and even wear masks.
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or email@example.com. Aleanna Siacon, Brandon Patterson, and Bill Laitner contributed.
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