CHICAGO - Deerfield real estate agent Brenda Ferdman was visiting a client's home Thursday morning when she did something far more alarming than take a few photos.
She started to cough.
This didn't sit well with the client.
"She was very concerned that I had the swine flu," Ferdman said. "I assured her that it was just an allergy."
The American workplace this week is starting to resemble a cross
between a hypochondriac convention and those first few days of
elementary school, when students are taught to wash their hands, cough
into their elbows and throw away used tissue.
As the number of confirmed cases of swine flu grows and concerns mount,
corporate America is grappling with how best to keep healthy employees
well and at work in slimmed-down workplaces, and how to keep the sick
Corporate-wide e-mails containing tips from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention are prevalent. Managers are making sure
bathrooms are well-stocked with paper towels. Anti-bacterial hand
sanitizers are being strategically placed where employees come in
contact with the public.
So far, it appears many employers aren't willing to relax sick-time and
vacation-day policies, but discussions of non-punitive, liberal leave
policies are starting to take place behind closed doors, said Russell
Robbins, a senior clinical consultant at human resources consultant
Companies "are trying to prevent things from getting worse," Robbins said. "They're reviewing sick leave and work-from-home."
Many companies have put the brakes on travel.
Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc., in addition to posting prevention
tips on the company's intranet and on bulletin boards in its
manufacturing plants, has suspended employee travel to, from and within
Mexico. Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg has asked employees to reschedule
non-essential trips to Mexico and to review health-related information
before going there.
Companies also are advising managers and their employees to be on the
lookout for flu-like symptoms within their offices and act accordingly.
"Stay home, that is definitely the message," said Walgreen Co.
spokeswoman Tiffani Washington. 'We've instructed people to talk to
their employees, and if they feel sick, stay home."
Navigating through that discussion, though, can be difficult. Is it
swine flu that's keeping you from the office, a late night out or just
a mental health day?
DePaul University warned its managers Thursday that because of
privacy issues, they cannot ask an employee who calls in sick about
their symptoms or tell them when they should return to work.
"We're not giving medical advice," said DePaul spokeswoman Denise
Mattson. "We're advising employees to consult with their physicians."
There also is the dilemma of how to handle employees who don't feel
well but would rather go to work than use their sick days. Sears
Holdings Corp. and Aetna Inc. are among companies allowing people to
work from home under those circumstances. Other employers maintain,
however, that if you're sick, you're sick, and your job is to get
The swine flu outbreak comes at a particularly vulnerable time for
businesses stretched thin. In those offices, employees with healthy
children whose school has been closed may be left with no choice but to
put their children in someone else's care and show up to work.
"Over the years we've had situations where a company could afford
to grant a day off or pick up day-care costs," said Robin Imbrogno, who
owns The Human Resource Consulting Group in Seymour, Conn. "But today
is a different economy. Those are expenses on top of employee benefits,
on top of paid time off, on top of sick-leave time. To throw one more
piece of benefit into that mix is just going to push everyone over the
Some employees are taking matters into their own hands. Brian Handler,
a Chicago-area Sprint Nextel consultant, is scaling back in-person
calls and stocking up on hand sanitizers and wipes. But when he does
have a meeting, there's one gesture he can't avoid.
"We always have to shake hands, so I'll roll the dice on that," he said.
Meanwhile, the phrase "swine flu" already has made its way into the vernacular.
Wintrust Financial Corp. Chief Executive Edward Wehmer trotted out
a swine flu metaphor Wednesday while discussing loan quality at his
Lake Forest-based bank holding company.
"We're pretty sure that among some of our bad loans, we have some swine
flu carriers out there, so we'll deal with that as well as we can," he
Hand Sanitizer Sales Soar Amid Swine Flu Scares
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