What has been called the worst flu season in a decade could cost companies billions of dollars in employee health care costs for hospitalizations and more outpatient visits.
According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annual influenza epidemics result in an average 3.1 million hospitalized days and $10.4 billion in direct medical costs annually, based on the 2003 U.S. population.
Kathleen Caminiti, a partner in the New York and New Jersey office of Fisher & Phillips, an Atlanta-based law firm that specializes in labor and employment law, said there were certain precautions employers could take to limit business losses and help their employees.
She said her office had received more inquiries this year than last year from companies inquiring what they could do to protect themselves and their employees in this "aggressive" flu season, exemplified by Boston declaring a public health emergency Wednesday, with 18 flu-related deaths have been reported in the state.
"The first thing we say is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," she said.
Even encouraging employees to wash their hands or to get flu shots can possibly prevent the spread of germs.
"Having an office manager go out to buy hand sanitizer may be the best $20 you spend," Caminiti said.
While some employers provide free flu shots in the office, health care settings can require employees to get them.
If a company not in the health field would like to make flu shots mandatory, Caminiti recommended conducting a health risk assessment for the workplace to support the mandate. The company would also be required to engage in a "very interactive, individualized process" with respect to any employee who objects to a flu shot for health or religious reasons.
John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said employers need to assess whether their work culture encourages those who are sick to stay home.
"Not only do people not want to come in when others around them are sick, but companies are realizing when there's an outbreak, the whole work force goes down," he said.
Caminiti said some companies might be inclined to be more lenient with those who call in sick, allowing them an extra day to work from home to recover, or not requiring a doctor's note for those who have not been able to see a doctor.
"As long as you act uniformly, you're in good shape," Caminiti said.