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Workplaces shiver at prospect of flu

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Fitness instructor Faye Scott may be one of the few working Atlantans who'll have some protection this winter. She's vaccinated.

"I happened to be in the right place at the right time," said Scott, who teaches 25 fitness classes a week throughout metro Atlanta.

Scott got a $20 dose of the now-scarce serum last Tuesday, the day the nation learned there would be a severe vaccine shortage this winter because of a key supplier's contamination issues.

Many businesses are canceling or severely curbing their on-site flu shot programs --- a convenient source of flu vaccinations for many Americans --- at the request of federal health officials who plan to dole out flu shots only to the most dire cases.

While U.S. health officials cobble together a backup plan for the shortage, American businesses are bracing for possible spikes in absenteeism and dips in worker productivity if the flu season turns wicked.

"For a lot of employers, if you haven't already received your vaccine, it's probably too late," said Jen Jorgensen, a spokesperson for Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource management, a 190,000-member group. "Employers are concerned about absenteeism, part of which depends on how bad the flu season is."

While it's too early to know what toll the shortage will have on the U.S. economy, one expert estimates that unscheduled absences from flu and other illnesses typically run a company about $610 a person a year. For large companies, the tab can be as high as $1 million in unscheduled absences, according to CCH Inc., which tracks workplace trends.

Many companies are telling workers they'll have to look elsewhere if they want to get flu shots this year.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., which still hasn't heard whether it will receive its shipment of flu vaccines, said it will allot its share to those who need it most.

"If we do receive vaccines and there remains a shortage for the general population, we will provide our shipment to state and local health authorities for distribution to the public," said Coke spokesman Ben Deutsch.

The company has offered the benefit to its workers at $15 a shot for the past 10 years.

BellSouth, meanwhile, issued an internal memo about the shortage, telling workers it "could no longer offer our employees flu shots through the company."

Similarly, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Atlanta-based parent of the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza chains, said Friday it had to cancel plans to offer flu shots to its employees this year.

Home Depot said Friday that it will follow the Centers for Disease Control recommendations and forgo its annual flu shot program.

The company is keeping workers abreast of any changes and pushing prevention and health tips via its internal television and Web systems, according to Wendi Bailey, manager of Building Better Health, Home Depot's Worksite health promotion program.

"We're hoping we won't have a lot of absences," Bailey said. "We're really focusing on prevention messages. At this point, we're just going to wait and see and take the best care of ourselves that we possibly can."

Delta Air Lines is also following CDC guidelines and has postponed its flu vaccination program, said spokesman John Kennedy. He said Delta has not asked employees to skip the shots if they want to obtain them elsewhere.

Company-sponsored flu shot programs have become as much a part of the workplace as in-house cafeterias and cafeteria health plans.

A national survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 60 percent of its members who responded offered on-site vaccinations.

The group has fielded calls from companies looking for guidance on how to proceed: How do you handle sick time abuse? What about those companies that are sticklers and adhere to work rules?

This may be the time for companies to act with flexibility and keep the lines of communication open with workers, says CCH's Rosen. Some solutions: Ease up on by-the-book rules on sick days and, if necessary, allow employees to work from home.

"Employers need to talk as much and and often as possible about preventative measure that stop short of getting vaccines," Rosen said. "Wash your hands, eat healthy, exercise, stay away from sick people or other places where they can become exposed."

That's the advice Scott repeatedly drums into the heads of the people attending her exercise and yoga classes. She tells them to avoid going to work or coming into her exercise classes if they're sick.

Scott understands she's one of the lucky ones but, "I don't want people to think I would step in front of people who need [vaccines] more than I would."

She figures she comes in contact with about 500 people a week in her classes "where there's lots of breathing and I'm exposed to all kinds of people in all kinds of places."

Scott began getting vaccinated regularly about five years ago when she became ill after coming in contact with someone who had the flu.

"I have to have it for my job," she said. "If I don't work, I don't get paid." --- Staff Writers Russell Grantham, Renee DeGross, Robert Luke and Leon Stafford contributed to this article.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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