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Call in sick -- please

Many companies are actively discouraging unwell employees from coming to work.

January 10, 2005|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

When a miserable cold struck Kim Colabella in early December, duty called. Her supervisor and several colleagues were out of the office, and Colabella determined that, ailing or not, she needed to keep things going. So she took a cold pill, packed up her tissues and soldiered on to work.

But when Colabella arrived at Corporate Wellness Inc., a Mt. Kisco, N.Y., firm that coordinates employee health services for other companies, her sniffling, red-eyed arrival won her a decidedly chilly reception. A co-worker followed her around with a box of disinfectant wipes, swabbing down any surface she touched. Fellow employees reared back in horror when she came near and finally banished her to her cubicle. The stricken office worker dared not emerge, even for lunch, and used the fax and copy machines only when she had accumulated enough paperwork to make a single trip.

In another year, Colabella's devotion to her employer would have been lauded. This time, she was as welcome at work as Typhoid Mary. And her transformation from would-be hero to workplace pariah has a simple explanation: the recent shortage of flu vaccine.

Most healthy adults -- more than 95%, by the federal government's latest reckoning -- are entering the flu season unvaccinated. The shortage has eased in some states, but with just 5 million doses left and with large numbers of high-priority patients still seeking vaccine, public health authorities are calling for continued rationing. Most healthy workers probably will remain unvaccinated through the season.

As a result, "presenteeism" -- the practice of showing up to work sick -- is now on the agenda of human resources departments across the country.

Whether it's a flu, cold or stomach virus going around, companies and their employees are realizing that it only takes one employee coming to work sick to spark a workplace outbreak and set off waves of absenteeism down the line.

"All of a sudden, people are talking about it," says Ron Goetzel, a Cornell University/Medstat economist who studies the phenomenon of working while ill. "It wasn't in people's vocabulary a year ago." Now, he says, "employers are realizing there are real costs to it."

This year especially, says workplace analyst Lori Rosen, "the idea of the 'hero-worker' that manages to punch in for a full day's work despite illness needs to be discouraged." Contagious workers jeopardize the health and productivity of all employees, she says. So their bosses need to emphasize that while they need their employees at work, "they first want a healthy workplace," says Rosen, of CCH Associates, a human resources consulting firm.

As cold and flu season begins to take hold, companies across the country are issuing memos and posting signs in workplace restrooms, urging workers to wash their hands frequently, cover their coughs and sneezes, get enough rest and eat nutritious foods. Usually appearing at the bottom of this stay-well litany is an admonishment that few bosses have ever issued before, and many -- even now -- issue through gritted teeth: If you're sick, stay home, employees are being told. And don't come back until you're better.

Managers running scared

At Northrop Grumman Corp.'s El Segundo plant, for instance, an e-mailed and posted memo urged 4,800 production and office workers to "stay home when you're ill" and to avoid close contact with those who seem sick. Bottles of hand sanitizer and boxes of disinfectant wipes popped up on desks and in break rooms throughout the facility.

Make no mistake about it, however: This last workplace edict comes not out of a sudden Ebenezer Scrooge-like conversion of bosses everywhere. They're scared: not of the flu itself -- with its high fevers and aching muscles -- but of an unvaccinated workforce decimated by it, causing missed deadlines, blown production runs and shoddy work. Garden-variety viruses are bad enough, but the flu packs a punch that can last a week or more.

This past fall, 60% of the large employers polled by the Society for Human Resources Management said they were planning to offer flu shots or sponsor flu vaccine clinics for their employees this year. During last year's flu season, widespread efforts like these helped push flu inoculation levels among healthy Americans to historic levels -- nearly one in four healthy adults younger than 65 got the shot.

But this year, virtually all such plans were scrubbed after government regulators condemned roughly half the nation's projected supply of flu vaccine because of contamination at Chiron Corp.'s British manufacturing plant. While 27 million doses were quickly set aside for babies, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions, healthy workers have faced the flu season armed with little more than hand sanitizer and a heightened wariness of sick people they encounter in their daily rounds.

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