https://www.dallasnews.com/business/health-care/2018/02/07/flu-season-could-cost-d-fw-businesses-nearly-265-million-lost-productivity

Sabriya Rice, Business of Health Care Reporter

Sherrie Dvorak, who works at the professional staffing agency Frontline Source Group, has seen the impact of this flu season on employers and employees in the Dallas area first hand.

A client whom the agency had just placed in a full-time sales position at a North Texas logistics company contacted Dvorak the day before she was scheduled to start the new job. After a full day of fever, body aches and extreme fatigue, the employee was diagnosed with the flu and was worried.

“We’ve had a lot of people scheduled to start new jobs and we’ve had to delay the start dates,” Dvorak said. And Dvorak, who was at home caring for her daughter who had the flu, could relate.

“It’s hitting close to home around here,” she said.

As the 2017-2018 flu season continues taking its toll on public health, businesses have been scrambling to keep staffing levels up as they cover the vacant shifts of those who’ve gotten sick.

Meanwhile, the demand for short-term workers to fill in gaps is higher than normal this season, Dvorak said.

Economic impact

The aggressive flu strain that’s circulating this year could potentially lead to $264.9 million in lost productivity in the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth area by the time flu season ends, according to an estimate by Chicago-based employment consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

The firm uses state-level wage and flu reporting data to gauge the business impact. In fact, it recently upped its national number by 64 percent, estimating that the overall loss in productivity for U.S. businesses could now top $15.4 billion by spring.

In Texas, there were 19,441 positive flu tests between October and the end of January, according to the latest data from Texas Health and Human Services.

The most frequent strain reported is H3N2, a strain associated with more severe disease, even among people who have no underlying health problems, the Centers for Disease Control notes.

North Texas health systems said they are logging numbers of positive flu tests that are more than double what they had at the same time last year, which could provide a small glimpse into the numbers of people who are calling out sick.

For example, Arlington-based Texas Health Resources says it had 1,220 positive flu tests in January 2017 compared to 3,642 last month. Likewise, Dallas’ Parkland Health and Hospital System saw its number of positive flu tests more than quadruple from 244 in January 2017 to 1,472 and last month.

Statewide, more than 19,000 positive tests were reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services by the end of last month, compared to just over 2,600 at the same time last year.

Working while sick

But getting sick people to actually stay home, which in theory should be easy, remains a big challenge as companies try to stave off the spread of the flu virus among staff.

Part of it has to do with confusion over symptoms, said Marianne Fazen, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Business Group on Health. The coalition of 165 business includes American Airlines, Texas Instruments and JC Penney and represents more than 238,000 DFW area employees.

“People don’t know if they have a common cold or influenza,” Fazen said. “And if they’ve gotten a flu shot as recommended by many employers, they may also incorrectly assume they are protected,” she said.

This Centers for Disease Control said last month that flu shot is less effective against the strain that’s hitting the nation hard. But medical professional say it’s still worth getting because it still reduces the severity of the illness and reduces the risk, even if by a smaller percentage than expected.

“There are still some protective effects,” said Dr. Nikhil Bhayani, a infectious disease physician in Texas Health’s Hurst-Euless-Bedford region. “Don’t decline the flu vaccine thinking ‘it just didn’t work,’ he said.

Another challenge for employers could include work arrangements and cultures that encourage staff to be present, even when it’s in everyone’s best interest that they stay at home instead.

“Organizations often don’t realize how much it costs them,” said Doug Goodman, who heads the public and nonprofit management program at The University of Texas at Dallas.

He noted a 2015 report which suggested that an employee showing up to work sick can cost a company more than what it  would for that employee’s medical care, prescription drugs and sick leave combined.

There are no federal laws that require employers to provide paid sick leave for their employees, but seven states and Washington D.C. have created laws to that effect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas leaves it up to individual employers, and according to the Texas Workforce Commission, most companies provide some kind of paid leave.

But it’s not just enough to have a policy in place. Making sure it’s enforced can have a big impact on a company’s bottom line, and much of that starts at the top, Goodman said.

“Lead by example. If you’re the boss and you’re sick, stay home,” he said. “Sometimes the organizational culture is ‘if you aren’t dying, you should be at work and loss of productivity tends to snowball off of that.”

People infected with the flu virus can continue spreading it for up to seven days, even if they no longer have symptoms, Bhayani noted.

Still, he and others said that in terms of severity, this season is not as bad as in 2009 when the spread of H1N1 resulted in lung complications and respiratory failure, and people began walking around with protective face masks to keep safe. “I still keep one in my pocket,” Bhayani said.

Seasonal demand

To that point, flu season can bring in extra business for some companies.  Sales have skyrocketed at a Tarrant County manufacturer of surgical face masks.

“We’re working overtime to keep up,” said Prestige Ameritech owner Mike Bowen.

He sells masks in bulk to North Texas health systems and says business is up about 40 percent as area facilities have boosted supply to cover the mouth and noses of flu patients waiting in emergency rooms and other public spaces.

While the boom in businesses has ebbed over the past week, he’s one of the few surgical mask makers that is still domestically based, and says his company has been close to its limit.

“If the demand would have been much higher, we would have had to turn away new customers,” Bowen said.

 

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