Call in sick -- please

Times Staff Writer

When a miserable cold struck Kim Colabella in early December, duty called. Her supervisor and several colleagues were out of the office, and Colabella determined that, ailing or not, she needed to keep things going. So she took a cold pill, packed up her tissues and soldiered on to work.

But when Colabella arrived at Corporate Wellness Inc., a Mt. Kisco, N.Y., firm that coordinates employee health services for other companies, her sniffling, red-eyed arrival won her a decidedly chilly reception. A co-worker followed her around with a box of disinfectant wipes, swabbing down any surface she touched. Fellow employees reared back in horror when she came near and finally banished her to her cubicle. The stricken office worker dared not emerge, even for lunch, and used the fax and copy machines only when she had accumulated enough paperwork to make a single trip.

In another year, Colabella’s devotion to her employer would have been lauded. This time, she was as welcome at work as Typhoid Mary. And her transformation from would-be hero to workplace pariah has a simple explanation: the recent shortage of flu vaccine.

Most healthy adults -- more than 95%, by the federal government’s latest reckoning -- are entering the flu season unvaccinated. The shortage has eased in some states, but with just 5 million doses left and with large numbers of high-priority patients still seeking vaccine, public health authorities are calling for continued rationing. Most healthy workers probably will remain unvaccinated through the season.


As a result, “presenteeism” -- the practice of showing up to work sick -- is now on the agenda of human resources departments across the country.

Whether it’s a flu, cold or stomach virus going around, companies and their employees are realizing that it only takes one employee coming to work sick to spark a workplace outbreak and set off waves of absenteeism down the line.

“All of a sudden, people are talking about it,” says Ron Goetzel, a Cornell University/Medstat economist who studies the phenomenon of working while ill. “It wasn’t in people’s vocabulary a year ago.” Now, he says, “employers are realizing there are real costs to it.”

This year especially, says workplace analyst Lori Rosen, “the idea of the ‘hero-worker’ that manages to punch in for a full day’s work despite illness needs to be discouraged.” Contagious workers jeopardize the health and productivity of all employees, she says. So their bosses need to emphasize that while they need their employees at work, “they first want a healthy workplace,” says Rosen, of CCH Associates, a human resources consulting firm.

As cold and flu season begins to take hold, companies across the country are issuing memos and posting signs in workplace restrooms, urging workers to wash their hands frequently, cover their coughs and sneezes, get enough rest and eat nutritious foods. Usually appearing at the bottom of this stay-well litany is an admonishment that few bosses have ever issued before, and many -- even now -- issue through gritted teeth: If you’re sick, stay home, employees are being told. And don’t come back until you’re better.

Managers running scared

At Northrop Grumman Corp.'s El Segundo plant, for instance, an e-mailed and posted memo urged 4,800 production and office workers to “stay home when you’re ill” and to avoid close contact with those who seem sick. Bottles of hand sanitizer and boxes of disinfectant wipes popped up on desks and in break rooms throughout the facility.

Make no mistake about it, however: This last workplace edict comes not out of a sudden Ebenezer Scrooge-like conversion of bosses everywhere. They’re scared: not of the flu itself -- with its high fevers and aching muscles -- but of an unvaccinated workforce decimated by it, causing missed deadlines, blown production runs and shoddy work. Garden-variety viruses are bad enough, but the flu packs a punch that can last a week or more.

This past fall, 60% of the large employers polled by the Society for Human Resources Management said they were planning to offer flu shots or sponsor flu vaccine clinics for their employees this year. During last year’s flu season, widespread efforts like these helped push flu inoculation levels among healthy Americans to historic levels -- nearly one in four healthy adults younger than 65 got the shot.

But this year, virtually all such plans were scrubbed after government regulators condemned roughly half the nation’s projected supply of flu vaccine because of contamination at Chiron Corp.'s British manufacturing plant. While 27 million doses were quickly set aside for babies, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions, healthy workers have faced the flu season armed with little more than hand sanitizer and a heightened wariness of sick people they encounter in their daily rounds.

In Manhattan, where flu season has begun in earnest, the denizens of high finance are on guard for sick co-workers as never before. In trading pits where large numbers of salespeople share a common bank of phones, frenzied traders taking incoming calls no longer pick up the nearest handset, says Timothy Pierotti, a portfolio manager at Victoire Finance Capital on Wall Street.

Rather than risk exposure to their fellow traders’ germs, most workers will expend precious seconds sprinting back to use their own phone. Hand sanitizers -- cantaloupe scented is the local favorite -- have become as common a desk accessory on Wall Street as a Palm Pilot.

And in spite of much evidence that influenza is circulating, nobody -- nobody, says Pierotti -- will admit to having it, for fear of being banned from the conference rooms, trading floors and after-hours watering holes where money is made and clients are nurtured.

Illness gums up the works

When a healthy adult gets the flu shot, the number of workdays he or she will lose to influenza decreases by as much as 43% on average, according to Dr. Kristin Nichol of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. Healthy workers come to work, make fewer doctor visits and meet deadlines. Sick workers gum up the works, which is why so many large employers cover flu shots and sponsor flu vaccine clinics.

On average, says Nichol, a normally healthy working adult who contracts influenza will be sick -- and highly contagious -- for five to six days. And he or she will miss, on average, one to three days of work.

Those numbers speak volumes about the work ethic -- or the sheer necessity -- that propels people to work even when they are sick.

“People who don’t think twice about keeping a child home from school won’t think to stay home two days later when they have the same symptoms,” says Roslyn Stone, an executive of Corporate Wellness who chairs the American Medical Assn. and Centers for Disease Control’s Workplace Flu Prevention Working Group.

But when sick workers come to work, it’s no bargain for employers. Presenteeism (the opposite of absenteeism) costs companies as much as $150 billion in lost productivity, higher healthcare expenses and cascading absences due to contagion, according to a recent report in the Harvard Business Review.

In Britain, disdain for these “presenters” has won them labels such as “mucus troopers.” In the United States, where coming to work sick has long been the norm, this year’s flu vaccine shortage seems to be setting off a backlash.

“We don’t call them a hero anymore. We call them a martyr,” says Christine Benton, a 33-year-old public relations manager who oversees a team of five employees from an office in San Diego. “It feels like the ethic is so much to be at work no matter what,” she says.

Recently Benton decided it was time to set an example for her co-workers, a tactic that experts say is key if middle managers are going to convince sick employees to stay home. When she fell ill with a cold, Benton put out an office message. “I sent an e-mail saying, ‘I’m sick. I’m not working today,’ ” she says. “I didn’t say explicitly, ‘I’m doing this; you should do this too.’ But that was the idea.”

While the flu season has been light so far, Benton says her example seems to be working. Every couple of weeks, someone on her team will call in sick. “They’ll say, ‘I’m staying home. I don’t want to infect everyone in the office,’ ” says Benton. “That’s pretty much the only thing that prevents them from coming in.”

While many human resources departments have begun to get the message, this year’s shortage of flu vaccine comes at a time when presenteeism and the forces that cause it are in full blossom. A fitful economic recovery has left employers scrambling to do more with downsized workforces, and it has fostered insecurity among employees.

In recent years, the number of workers with no paid sick leave has increased. Large employers have been trimming sick days, or collapsing them, along with workers’ vacation time and personal days, into a single pool of paid time off. And 91% of large employers surveyed recently said they sought to control absenteeism by penalizing workers who overuse their sick days -- either by docking their pay or by entering a negative report in their personnel files.

All these developments, say experts, encourage sick workers to come to work anyway, no matter how many clients, customers or co-workers they infect and no matter how poorly they work.

Today more than 59 million workers -- about 47% of the workforce -- have no paid sick leave, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and 86 million have no paid leave to care for sick children. For these workers, most in lower-paid jobs, a sick day is more than a bout of fever and aches. It’s a cut in take-home pay and a threatened job loss. So most come to work anyway.

Nowhere is the coverage of sick leave more scant than in the hotel and food preparation industry, where just 4% of workers can take a paid day to recover from illness. During the seven years that Yolanda Wallace, a Milwaukee mother of six, worked at Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, she never had paid sick days. Even if she could have afforded to miss work, Wallace says, she always feared dismissal if she called in ill.

As a result, she regularly coughed and sneezed her way through shifts during flu season and probably handed over a lot of germs along with the fried chicken. “I’d just go in and do the best I could do,” she says.

This year is different, says Wallace, not only because her new job offers paid sick days, but because her new employer -- a day-care center -- doesn’t want her coming in sick and infecting the preschool customers and their families.

Heeding colleagues’ voice

Messages from some bosses may still be mixed, but workplace heroes -- or martyrs -- are getting the new message loud and clear from co-workers.

Matthew Sydney, vice president of LifeCare Inc., a human resources firm in Connecticut, calls rank-and-file workers “an upward pressure on middle management” to keep sick employees out of the office this flu season. In a year when so many feel more vulnerable than usual to flu, co-workers will probably offer to pull one another’s workloads, complain to the boss about sick co-workers -- and, in a pinch, quarantine them in their cubicles, as Colabella’s co-workers did to her.

“I think,” says Sydney, “you’ll see a fair amount of, ‘Hey go home! I don’t want to get sick!’ ”