Oct. 14, 2004--American workers may be at increased risk of catching the flu this season as a result of a shortage of vaccinations and the rising threat posed by employees coming to work sick, according to a report released Wednesday.
With many businesses already unable to offer to offer the vaccinations they had provided in years past, the new report by CCH, a provider of employment law information, said that the flu-shot shortage also means employers need to guard against what it termed "presenteeism"--employees coming to work despite being sick.
"With a serious flu season looming, the idea of the 'hero worker' that manages to punch in for a full-day's work, despite illness, needs to be discouraged," said Lori Rosen, a CCH workplace analyst, in a statement. "Employers need to emphasize to employees that while they need them at work, they first want a healthy workplace."
According to CCH, 91% of organizations it surveyed use disciplinary action to control absenteeism, but such policies can discourage employees from staying home when they're sick.
"For example, in an organization that allots each employee five sick days a year, and takes disciplinary action on the sixth absence, an employee who has been wiped out with the flu for several days may choose to come to work ill rather than risk the discipline," Rosen said. "This is especially true at the beginning of the year, when employees are concerned about depleting all of their allowed leave in just a month or two. Unfortunately, that time also is the height of flu season."
The survey found that the number of employers who allow workers to carry over unused sick days into the following year has plunged from 51% in 2000 to 37% in 2004. But it noted that 63% of employers now offer a "paid leave bank" program, under which personal, vacation and sick days are combined into a single block that the employee can manage according to his or her needs.
CCH said employers can take several steps to minimize flu season disruptions, including establishing guidelines that help employees understand when they should stay home, urging managers to set an example by not coming to work when ill, and recognizing the contributions of employees who cover for sick colleagues.
The flu shot shortage was triggered when a British regulatory agency suspended the license of the company that manufactures Fluvirin, causing the U.S. to lose half of its expected vaccine supply for the 2004-2005 influenza season, which typically peaks between December and March, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC said it has teamed with another manufacturer to distribute its remaining doses to high-priority facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, and at-risk groups such as young children, seniors, and pregnant women.