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How employers, businesses cope with this year’s severe flu outbreak

Mother Nature is having her way with the economy again, but this time via a microscopic virus rather than a gargantuan storm, earthquake or tidal wave.

flu outbreak CNN video

CNN reports that the number of flu-related deaths for children has been climbing.

Ominous headlines about the magnitude of this year’s flu season are spilling onto business pages, and you might want to take a run at several financial angles to influenza if the sickness has a grip on your region.

And it probably does:  check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly map showing prevalence of the flu by state; very few states aren’t coded brown for “widespread” according to estimates by state epidemiologists, and the CDC is being quoted as saying the outbreak — already elevated to “epidemic” status in some regions — is among the worst in a decade.

That has implications for employers, consumers, health care systems and other big segments of the economy; indeed, NBCNews.com’s Economy Watch blog says the sickness sweeping the U.S. has the potential to slow the economy even further.  You might want to interview area public health experts, economics, economic development officials and others about how exactly a widespread flu could affect your region.  Would it dampen tourism and shopping?  Slow manufacturing via absenteeism?  Boost health care costs for small businesses?

The consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas is out with its prediction that this outbreak “could cost employers billions” and cites CDC estimates that an average flu season costs companies $10.4 billion in hospitalization and medical care, not counting lost productivity.  (Unfortunately Challenger, Gray does not post its releases with a direct URL but the firm’s media relations staff will add you to their e-distribution list upon request.)   Interestingly, this year, the focus is not on absenteeism and lost employee hours but rather “presenteeism,” the term for workers who show up sick out of misplaced conscientiousness or even fear of losing their job and wages if they call in sick.

In additon to snapshots about how businesses are coping, flu season is an opportunity to explore more fundamental issues affecting the jobs market, the growing consumer/service sector and the overall economy.  How are human resource policies and legislation keeping up with a market in which workers fear that they’re easily replaced if they miss work?

Google flu map 2013

Google's flu trends map uses search data to estimate flu activity.

That’s a particularly interesting angle to pursue in our current tough climate: How are employers handling the dilemma of workers who come in ill?  How do present-day leave policies — which may conflate sick and vacation hours as one big pot of “personal time” encourage workers to show up sneezing in order to save time off for recreation?  What about hourly workers, and those who deal with the public at low-wage employers such as Wal-Mart?   What about restaurant workers and others who handle food?  According to the research firm The Advisory Board, only one-third of workers who earn $10.50 an hour or less call out sick when they are ill.  (And the release notes Connecticut’s law requiring paid sick leave in an effort to combat the practice.)

What about schools, day cares, hospitals and other essential venues?  How do employers handle teachers and health care professionals who are needed on the job or not easily replaced on short notice, yet are too sick to have contact with clients?  Are temp staffing agencies hopping to fill the berths of flu-stricken workers?   I found a story from Canada noting that demand for temp staffing is up by double digits; what’s the scene in your market?   And don’t forget about technology — as employers seek to limit human contact, are telecommuting, video conferencing and other remote means of communication coming into play?

Here’s a previous blog post I wrote before the start of flu season that offers other resources.

 

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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