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Flu Hits Employers Harder This Year

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With flu cases now widespread in 45 states, employers are feeling the strain.

Companies are facing a surge of workers taking sick days and questions about what to do when ill employees come to work. The flu costs employers an estimated $1 billion a year due to such factors as missed workdays and treatment, according to the American Medical Association.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged employees with the flu to stay home to help stem the transmission.

''I work in a small office now, and there were several people who were coming in ill. As a result, I got sick,'' says Rachael Gray, 25, of Chicago, a public relations account manager. ''I'd like them to stay home, but in this economy, your absence is felt. You get nervous about taking a sick day.''

The flu outbreak -- which, experts say, is especially bad this winter -- is expected to take a bigger toll on businesses. Here's why:

* Lean staffs. Companies shed workers during the last economic downturn, leaving fewer employees to do more work. The temporary loss of even a few employees can cause productivity headaches. Employees with sick children also tend to miss work, adding to the challenge.

''We've had employees sick and employees with sick children. And we're a small company, so we feel it,'' says Beverly Murray, president of F+M Creative, a marketing consulting firm in Cary, N.C., where employees have been sick with the flu and pneumonia. ''It's not like they're out for one or two days. It's four days, with fever.''

To help keep work going, the company has a laptop computer that sick workers can borrow. When an employee is sick, they send him or her home.

* Sick employees at work. Employees are more likely to spread the flu because sick employees are less likely to stay home. The absenteeism rate declined to 1.9% in 2003 from 2.1% in 2002, and the average annual per-employee cost of absenteeism dropped to $645 from an all-time high of $789 in 2002, according to a survey by CCH, a provider of employment law information and software.

''If people show up with flu, it will spread like wildfire through the workplace,'' says Lori Rosen, a workplace analyst with CCH.

* Cost of flu shots. Less than half of companies provide free flu shots, based on a separate CCH survey. At the same time, the cost of flu shots increased about 12% this year -- prompting some firms already hit with rising health care costs to stop offering them.

''Once a benefit is lost, it's rarely restored,'' says Rosalyn Stone, CEO of Corporate Wellness, a Mount Kisco, N.Y., provider of medical services. She also heads a workplace flu prevention group for the CDC. ''We believe the increased cost of flu shots will drive them out of the workplace, and that's a shame.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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