Biggest pandemic worry for business: absenteeism

Sep 25, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – Business officials who attended a conference this week on how the business world can cope with the H1N1 influenza pandemic said employee absenteeism was far and away their leading concern.

In live polling conducted during a conference plenary session, 81% of the attendees said their greatest concern about the pandemic was absenteeism. Only 13% said they were most worried about disruption of critical supply chains.

The conference drew around 300 people to downtown Minneapolis this week. It was hosted by the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), publisher of CIDRAP News.

About a third of the attendees were from the healthcare and pharmaceuticals sector, while 22% were in manufacturing, 14% in government, and 5% in financial services, according to a poll at the opening session.

While companies voiced concern about absenteeism, there was little agreement about just how much to expect. In a Wednesday morning poll, 21% of respondents said they expect peak absenteeism of 21% to 30%, while 12% expected a rate of 31% to 40%. Eighteen percent expected absenteeism to be less than 21%, while 36% percent declined to specify a range.

Earlier this week, a nationwide poll found that 84% of American workers feel that the current recession increases pressure on them to show up for work even when sick. The poll by Mansfield Communications also showed that 69% of workers reported getting no communications from their employers about policies related to the pandemic.

At the conference, more than a quarter of the attendees—28%—said their companies either were already screening workers to keep sick people out of the workplace or had plans to do so. Another 17% said they were considering that step, while 49% said they did not plan to do so, and 6% didn't know.

Michael Janko, business continuity manager for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, said Goodyear plans to start medical screening once the flu becomes widespread in Akron. "We're not doing it right now, but our plan is in place to do it once it's at level 6 in our community," said Janko, who was a panelist for a Wednesday morning session on "Benchmarking Preparedness."

Another instant-poll question showed that 66% of the companies represented have embraced the federal guidance about when it's safe for a recovering flu patient to return to work: 24 hours after fever subsides (without fever-reducing medication). Eighteen percent said their criterion was 7 days after fever resolves.

"It sounds like this [24-hour rule] is becoming the norm," said CIDRAP Director Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, who moderated the session.

Fewer than half of the organizations plan to pay employees for time off when they need to stay home to care for their children while schools are closed or to care for sick family members, according to polling conducted at the closing session on Wednesday afternoon.

The results differed somewhat for hourly versus salaried employees. For school closures, 24% of respondents said their companies plan to give hourly employees paid time off, while 47% said they would not, and the rest said they didn’t know or the move was being considered. For salaried employees, 34% of the companies planned to provide paid time off for school closures, while 41% did not.

Companies are more willing to pay workers who need to stay home to care for sick relatives, the polling indicated. For hourly workers, 37% of the attendees said yes to this, while 39% said no. For salaried workers the results were 46% yes and 36% no.

Another poll finding was that only 34% of the groups represented at the meeting had stockpiled antiviral drugs to help protect their workers from the flu. Only 16% of the attendees said they had a supply of antivirals at home.

Among the minority of companies that did buy antivirals, only 19% said they bought enough for all their workers, the polling showed. Thirty-one percent reported they bought the drugs for 10% to 49% of their employees, and 31% said they bought enough for fewer than 10% of the workforce.

"We looked at sourcing antivirals for 70,000 people, but it was an administrative and organizational mess," Janko commented in a question-and-answer period. He said that in some foreign locations, government controls prevent the company from readily supplying antivirals to its workers.

Given the complexity of the task, Sun Microsystems made a considered decision not to supply antivirals to its employees, said Karen Dye Oakley, director of global crisis management for the company, based in Tucson, Ariz., another panelist for the Wednesday morning session.

"We've taken the approach of communicating with our employees and educating them," she said.

Health sector representatives at the conference were asked if their organizations were following federal guidance on the use of respiratory protection, which says that health workers in direct contact with flu patients should wear N-95 respirators. The guidance is controversial because most health workers find the respirators hot and uncomfortable, and hospitals often run out of them.

About two thirds of the respondents (66%) said their employers were following the federal guidance, while 21% said they were not, and 13% said the policy was under review.

See also:

CIDRAP Business Source Web site

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