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As Concerns Rise About Sick Workers Spreading H1N1 Flu, Officials May Want To Use Bully Pulpit To Encourage ‘Flexible Leave’ Policies In Workplaces

November 3rd, 2009 · No Comments

As has been discussed on the blog a couple of times this summer, the H1N1 pandemic contingency plans for workplaces, particularly small businesses, continue to be a significant issue. Unlike schools, there is no central managerial authority to make and implement policies; guidelines have to be created and implemented on a firm by firm basis. It will also have to be done on a volunteer basis as there are no laws or mandates (ie. compulsory sick leave) in most of the country.

Health officials concern about the workplace and H1N1 is the subject of an article by Stephen Greenhouse in today’s New York Times, “Lack Of Sick Days May Worsen Flu Pandemic”:

Public health experts worried about the spread of the H1N1 flu are raising concerns that workers who deal with the public, like waiters and child care employees, are jeopardizing others by reporting to work sick because they do not get paid for days they miss for illness.

Tens of millions of people, or about 40 percent of all private-sector workers, do not receive paid sick days, and as a result many of them cannot afford to stay home when they are ill. Even some companies that provide paid sick days have policies that make it difficult to call in sick, like giving demerits each time someone misses a day.

Public health experts say policies like these encourage many people with H1N1, commonly called swine flu, to report to work despite official warnings from the government and most companies that they should stay home.

“For people who are really caught on a weekly income, if they can’t make a go of it, they might say, ‘I’m desperate. I’m going to do what I have to do, and I’m going into work even though I’m sick,’” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at Harvard.

He warned that this might spread disease, and that these financially squeezed workers might send their flu-stricken children to school, infecting others.

Well before President Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was emphasizing that businesses should adopt “flexible leave policies” to allow workers with the flu to stay home. In one advisory, the C.D.C. encouraged employers “to develop non-punitive leave policies.” Despite such recommendations, some employees say they have no choice but to go to work sick.

As has been suggested previously on the blog, one way officials at local, state and federal levels — including President Obama — could be helpful is by highlighting businesses of all sizes who are already making plans for their workforce. This attention would provide guidance, encouragement (and, in some cases, pressure) for other organizations.

Using the bully pulpit in that way would underscore how seriously the government takes this and make special planning/policies for H1N1 seem like the norm not the exception. The media can also play a constructive role here by examining what is and is not being planned by organizations in their areas.

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Tags: Business Preparedness · Pandemic Flu · President Obama

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