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Flu season has workers taking cover

Published: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
A public health nurse demonstrates drawing flu vaccine from a bottle at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Flu season in the U.S. has struck early and, in many places, hard. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reports a sharp increase in the number of confirmed flu cases and the number of flu-related deaths in the past week. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Are you sneezing or hacking? It could make you persona non grata in the workplace.

Workers are dodging colleagues with cold and flu in what could be one of the worst flu seasons in years. Others are urging colleagues to go home – and are chagrined when they don’t, spreading their germs at work.

“I don’t want to sit near that person – they’re coming down with a cold or flu” has been the sentiment of co-workers in a meeting who hear someone coughing, said Janet Wincko, human resources director for City Furniture, a retailer based in Tamarac, Fla.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That doesn’t include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.

And the flu season “is shaping up to be a bad season compared to last year. We hope we’re reaching the peak, but we can’t say until the season is over,” said CDC spokesman Curtis Allen. January and February are considered the heaviest period of the flu season that stretches from October to March.

To prevent the spread of flu, companies often encourage workers to get a flu shot, with some even offering them for free at work.

For some employers, prevention or care for the sick is few steps away at their on-site health clinics. JM Family Enterprises in Deerfield Beach, Fla., said 85 percent of its local employees use the on-site health clinic.

Co-workers monitor each other for cold and flu, said Christie Caliendo, spokeswoman for the Toyota distributor. “ ‘Why don’t you run down to the clinic?’ They listen to their colleagues,” she said.

Carline St. Vil-Joseph, a nurse practitioner who works at an on-site clinic at ADT in Boca Raton, Fla., said she has treated several employees for flu and colds.

“I’m seeing a lot of patients,” she said. “People who didn’t get the flu shot are coming in now.”

Emily Frias, 29, went in October to get her free flu shot at ADT’s clinic. She opted for the vaccine because she teaches a children’s hip-hop class and knows kids tend to get sick.

She also remembers having the flu when she was a youngster. “It was awful,” said Frias, now a compensation specialist at ADT.

Area employers say they’ve had good participation by employees when they offer free flu shots.

JM Family, which has about 1,800 employees in Deerfield Beach, said 650 flu shots have been given to workers, contractors, security guards and employees’ families at the campus clinic.

So far, the clinic has had 47 cases of flu, said Dr. Richard Luceri, vice president of health care services for JM Family.

Nurse practitioner St. Vil-Joseph said she gives a letter to flu-ridden workers for their supervisors advising the employee be excused from work, to make sure they recover and don’t spread the illness.

While paid time off for being sick doesn’t exist in every workplace, the large employers interviewed say most workers can take sick leave, or leave for any reason from their bank of paid time off.

Still, workers concerned about job security may keep coming to the office even though they’re sick, notes outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Telecommuting can help, with employees who work from computers working at home if they’re feeling sick.

ADT is being proactive by placing posters around the office to remind workers of what they can do to “prevent the spread,” such as covering their mouths and nose with a tissue when they cough or sneeze.

Still, interactions with a co-worker who is sick can be awkward. Sometimes, it’s not possible to physically move away. And how do professionals in the workplace avoid shaking hands?

Perhaps workers should take a cue from ADT’s Frias, who works with children. She tells the kids who come to her dance class to “wave” if they’re feeling sick.

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