WASHINGTON — Nearly half the 70 employees at a Ford dealership in Clarksville, Ind., have been out sick at some point in the past month. It didn’t have to be that way, the boss says.
“If people had stayed home in the first place, a lot of times that spread wouldn’t have happened,” says Marty Book, a vice president at Carriage Ford. “But people really want to get out and do their jobs, and sometimes that’s a detriment.”
The flu season that has struck early and hard across the U.S. is putting businesses and employees alike in a bind. In this shaky economy, many Americans are reluctant to call in sick, something that can backfire for their employers.
Flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. The only states without widespread flu were California, Mississippi and Hawaii. And the main strain of the virus circulating tends to make people sicker than usual.
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Blake Fleetwood, president of Cook Travel in New York, says his agency is operating with less than 40 percent of its full-time staff because of the flu and other ailments.
He says the flu is also taking its toll on business as customers cancel their travel plans: “People are getting the flu and they’re reduced to a shriveling little mess and don’t feel like going anywhere.”
Many workers go to the office even when they’re sick because they are worried about losing their jobs, says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employer consulting firm. Other employees report for work out of financial necessity, since roughly 40 percent of U.S. workers don’t get paid if they are out sick. Some simply have a strong work ethic and feel obligated to show up.
Flu season typically costs employers $10.4 billion for hospitalization and doctor’s office visits, according to the CDC. That does not include costs of lost productivity.
At Carriage Ford, Book says the company plans to make flu shots mandatory for all employees.
Linda Doyle, CEO of the Northcrest Community retirement home in Ames, Iowa, says the company did so this year for its 120 workers, providing the shots at no cost. No one is expected to come to work if sick, she said. So far, there’s been no flu outbreak.
“Cleanliness is really the key,” she added. “Washing your hands. Wash, wash, wash.”
Among other steps that can reduce the spread of flu on the job: holding meetings via conference calls, staggering shifts so that fewer people are on the job at the same time, and avoiding handshakes.
The state of Connecticut and cities of Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., require some businesses to pay employees when they are out sick.