Flu Season May Cost Employers Billions – A Human Resource Crisis

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Flu outbreak should trigger company Communicable Illness plans

Flu Pandemic 2013Emergency rooms are overwhelmed. Shortages of vaccines have been reported. We are on the threshold of an epidemic.

The flu has been spreading fiercely across the United States, with 41 states reporting widespread activity, with the potential to cost employers and businesses.

Specifically, the proportion of people visiting doctors and physicians for flu-like symptoms has climbed from 2.8 percent to 5.6 percent in just four weeks – compared to the peak rate of 2.2 percent for the 2011 – 2012 season.

The virus causing the most problems: A particular strain of type A influenza called H3N2 has been the most predominantly reported this year.

The CDC said the seasonal flu will cost businesses nearly $10.5 billion in direct costs for hospitalizations and outpatient visits for adults.

That number does not include such costs as sick pay, work delays and lost productivity.

These estimates may downplay “network effects”—the business impact of disruptions to supply chains, distribution networks, communications infra-structure and the financial system.

2013 Flu Season—A Human Resources Crisis

Unlike the disasters that most companies plan for, a communicable illness/pandemic will not primarily affect equipment and facilities, but rather the people companies depend on to produce products and services. A company’s workforce could be depleted by 40% or more at any given time during a pandemic. The estimated duration of pandemics gauges the impact and recovery period at 18 to 24 months. This pushes the boundaries of virtually all existing absent-from-work policies.

Organizations must thoroughly examine their human resource management practices and policies to address the long timeline of a pandemic or other global health threat. Issues such as screening, monitoring, leave, absenteeism and other human resources matters are critical and have strategic implications. In making plans, employers will confront many federal, state and local regulatory challenges. Clearly, pandemic planning is a critical governance issue for senior management.

Additionally, the current assumptions about a pandemic’s duration push the boundaries of most existing absence-from-work policies. Therefore, organizations must thoroughly examine their human resource management practices and policies, refining and/or implementing policies that address the long timeline of a pandemic event.

Presenteeism and Absenteeism

You know what the problem with employees is? They want to come to work. It may be for the money, it may be because they take pride in their work. From the employer’s perspective, we think that’s a good thing. When employees are absent, it affects productivity, and may even cost us more money if we need to replace them on a temporary basis. The problem this work ethic creates, is what we refer to as PRESENTEEISM. That’s when employees come to work- even when they are sick- because that’s what the corporate culture demands.

During a communicable illness outbreak, that’s the last thing we as employers should want.

The flip-side of the coin is – what happens if 40% of your work force asks for leave at the same time? While most employees can’t afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave, if the impacts of the outbreak get severe enough, and mortality rates climb, money won’t be the driver. Are you prepared with employees who can fill the void while the permanent employees are sick? Retired workers? Temporary workers? Have you cross-trained others within the organization to perform the critical functions?


  • Because the threats are real.
  • Because you have an obligation to keep your employees safe.
  • Because planning is a governance issue.
  • Because if you don’t plan, you may face liability.
  • Most importantly, because it is the right thing to do for your employees, and all stakeholders.

Flu Plan

Human Resource Managers must analyze on a state by state/country-by-country basis the company’s current policies and benefit plans and their ability to address employees’ communicable illness related work, health, and disability needs.

Written Policies Employers should have as a part of their Communicable Illness Plan:

  • Cleaning
  • Hygiene
  • Social Distancing
  • Telecommuting
  • Travel
  • Visitors


Develop a Compensation Plan, Develop Cross Training/Staffing Strategies, Develop an Employee Wellness Strategy, Develop a Communications Plan, Develop Communicable Illness Polices, Develop a Recovery Strategy


Manage/Eliminate/Mitigate through “PREACTION”

Perform Test Exercises, Train Employees for Work and Home, Cross Train for Essential Functions, Keep Employees Well, Implement Recovery Strategy, Utilize Resources

If you are concerned about the impacts of this 2013 flu season, Firestorm’s Communicable Illness/Pandemic Plan addresses a myriad of concerns organizations face in the event of a communicable illness outbreak. Using a comprehensive model of human resources policies and procedures necessary for pandemic preparedness, Firestorm crafts an individual plan for each client. In preparing each plan, Firestorm:

  • Conducts a benchmark/gap analysis of existing plans, documents, policies and procedures;
  • Identifies plan activation triggers and monitoring plans; and
  • Develops and conducts training and testing procedures.
  • Clients can activate contingency staffing scenarios designed specifically for them to address staffing challenges caused by a communicable illness/pandemic.

Clients also receive crucial updates on any emergent pandemic threats. Guided by public health authorities on its Expert Council, including two former U.S. Surgeons General, Firestorm tracks communicable disease threats and alerts clients when the threat escalates from possible to imminent. With this early warning, clients can set in motion staffing scenarios that minimize disruptions to operations and ensures post-pandemic viability.


Who should get vaccinated?

Everyone who is at least 6 months of age should get a flu vaccine this season. It’s especially important for some people to get vaccinated. Those people include the following:

  • People who are at high risk of developing serious complications like pneumonia if they get sick with the flu
    • This includes
      • People who have certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.
      • Pregnant women.
      • People 65 years and older.
  • People who live with or care for others who are high risk of developing serious complications
    • This includes household contacts and caregivers of people with certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.

A detailed list is available at Who Should Get Vaccinated Against Influenza. A complete list of health and age factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of developing serious complications from flu is available at People Who Are at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications.



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