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Inoculating Firms Against Sick-Outs

(AP Photo/Greg Baker)
Last year's outbreaks of H1N1 virus hit schools hard, shutting many as transmission of the virus among students was confirmed or suspected.

Betsy McKay and Dana Mattioli of The Wall Street Journal write today about how businesses are increasingly worried that outbreaks of swine flu among their workforce may stall their operations — and are taking steps to limit or prevent the spread of the virus among employees.

According to a survey published in September by the Harvard School of Public Health, two-thirds of businesses questioned said their operations would suffer if half of their workforce were out sick with flu for two weeks. That figure rose to four-fifths if half the staff were out sick for a month.

How might companies inoculate themselves against an outbreak?

Fearing that the absence of personnel with specialized tasks in the event of a flu outbreak may grind business to a halt, some companies are asking employees to learn how to fill in if needed. Hormel conducts cross-training classes on Friday afternoons where workers learn how to do each other's jobs.

Offering employees vaccination clinics is another way, IF firms can access hard-to-get vaccines. That is difficult when supplies are tight and are being targeted to those at highest risk.

Some companies. like Continental Airlines and Monsanto, are stocking up on emergency supplies of Tamiflu and Relenza, or are dispensing vaccinations to employees traveling on business.

Keeping sick employees at home is another way to protect co-workers. However, employees with limited sick time or hourly workers may resist missing days without pay.

[Another survey by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that nearly half (44%) of respondents said they would suffer loss of pay and money problems if they had to stay home 7-10 days because they were sick or had to care for an ill family member — more reason for some to choose to participate in Bring Your Virus to Work Day.]

Some firms, like Texas Instruments, are relaxing their sick-leave policies, even allowing workers with H1N1 to "borrow" sick days from the future.

McKay and Mattioli note some executives may consider themselves too "essential" for the company to be without if they're showing flu symptoms.

"What do you do with the senior executive or senior partner who says, 'No, I'm going to tough it out?'" Nina Stillman, a partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, said to the Journal. "Employers are going to have to realize they're going to need to enforce their positions. If you're not feeling well, go home."

Better hygiene can't hurt, either. Companies are asking employees to wipe down their desks, phone handsets and headsets with sanitizing agents, and installing hand sanitizer dispensers and thermal scanners to cut the spread of the virus.

For more, read the full article at the Wall Street Journal.