For John Lombardo, there's only one way to battle the cold-and-flu season at Branches, his banquet business in West Long Branch, N. J. "You overstaff," he said...

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For John Lombardo, there’s only one way to battle the cold-and-flu season at Branches, his banquet business in West Long Branch, N.J.

“You overstaff,” he said with a laugh.

Leaves aren’t the only things that fall in the autumn. Workers find themselves falling sick, victims of flu and cold viruses.

That alone is a problem for their employers. But even worse, many try to get back to work much too early and risk infecting everyone else.

“Anytime people are in close proximity to one another, it increases the chance of spreading the virus,” said Dr. Steven Crawford, director of occupational health for Meridian Health, a Wall, N.J.-based operator of three hospitals.

Many people view colds and the flu as annoying inconveniences, but they can be more than that. Each year, an estimated 36,000 Americans die from the flu and 200,000 are hospitalized, says Dave Daigle, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Most of those people are in high-risk categories — such as people with asthma, emphysema, diabetes or other pre-existing conditions, said Martin Meltzer, an economist for the CDC. About 80 to 90 percent of the deaths are of people age 65 and older, he said.

Still, many workers are putting themselves in jeopardy, he said. A CDC report found only 24 percent of workers in the high-risk categories got a flu shot in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available.

About 10 to 12 percent of all absences from work are because of the flu, said Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer of Corporate Wellness, a health-services company based in New York City. That translates to about 15 million lost workdays a year.

And that doesn’t even count people who come to work sick and perform under par, or healthy workers who stay home to take care of sick relatives, Stone said.

Illnesses force employers to give serious consideration to their staffing needs. Lombardo, of Branches, overstaffs some of his catered events, knowing some workers will inevitably fall sick. Given the nature of his banquet business, they can’t have the option of coming to work and slogging through the day.

“If you’re in contact with food, it’s almost obligatory to not come to work, even if you want to work,” Lombardo said.

And even if Lombardo’s employees all stay healthy, they still have to deal with the public, some of whom may not be. “We do events where anyone can come in, like job fairs,” Lombardo said. “You can’t control who’s coming in.”

Some workers feel obligated to come in even when they should stay home for a variety of reasons, said Jim O’Connor of Egan, Amato & O’Connor, an employee-benefits consulting firm based in Manasquan, N.J. “There doesn’t have to be overt pressure for an employee to feel like he needs to be there,” he said.

Employees may feel that if they’re not there, they’re either showing a poor work ethic or letting their colleagues down.

Medical professionals say there’s little you can do if you get the flu or a cold, other than wait for your body to defeat it. Viruses aren’t defeated by antibiotics the way bacterial infections are.

“If you have the flu, don’t go to work,” said Crawford, of Meridian.