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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

More firms offer bank of days off for all uses as sick days become more challenging to take

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The best thing to do when sick is to call off work and focus on getting better. But doctors and business experts admit that isn’t always possible.

Still anxious over the economy, many workers fret any absence will reflect poorly in the eyes of their bosses.

Others don’t have the option of taking a paid sick day.

“That’s really a hard issue that public health grapples with all the time,” said Dr. Paul Rega, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and public health at the University of Toledo Medical Center, formerly the Medical College of Ohio.

“I understand people who need the money will force themselves to work,” he said.

“There’s no easy answer on that. There’s an academic answer, but nowadays that’s not sufficient.”

With the nation battling what is likely the worst influenza outbreak in a decade, many workers struggle with whether to go to work or stay home.

Most healthy adults who come down with the flu don’t require hospitalization, but it’s nothing to scoff at.

The flu is highly contagious and can hang on for days. Dr. Rega said people can spread the illness for up to two days before becoming sick, and can be contagious even after symptoms start to subside.

He said patients should stay home for at least a day or two after the fever has gone away.

“Nobody wants to stay home and linger. Even out of boredom you want to do something when you start feeling better,” he said. “But you may still be carrying contagions.”

Many workers drag themselves from sickbed to cubicle.

For some, it’s more necessity than choice.

A survey of 130 businesses in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan conducted last year by The Employers’ Association in Maumee found 39 percent of employers granted their employees no paid sick leave. That’s risen considerably since 2008, when the association found 18 percent of employers didn’t offer paid sick leave.

But Cheryl Riggs, human resources member services manager for the association, said that doesn’t necessarily mean employees at those firms can’t take paid time off when they are sick.

More employers are moving toward one bank of paid time off and shifting away from having separate time for vacation and sick leave.

In 2008, The Employers’ Association survey found 13 percent of employers had a paid time off bank that included vacation, sick, and personal days. By 2012, that had risen to 30 percent.

The change fits a trend that started before the recession and continues today, said Laura Hoag, a senior consultant in the Toledo office of Findley Davies Inc., a human resources consulting firm.

Employees with dedicated sick time sometimes feel they’re giving something up if they don’t use it, prompting them to call in sick when they’re not, Ms. Hoag said. By switching to a bank, that temptation is gone, while allowing employees to use their time however they see fit.

“It engages the employee to be good stewards of that time,” she said. “If they’re truly sick they would take that [paid time off]. They can use it if their child is sick, if they need personal time or vacation. It’s all lumped in one bank.”

Nationally, about 40 percent of private-sector employees aren’t offered paid sick time.

“Clearly the message there is even if you’re sick you ought to come in, especially for people who are strapped, as much of the working population has been over the last several years,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm.

He said employers traditionally have put a high value on workers coming in regardless, lest they seemingly promote a culture where calling off is routine. But that can be a mistake.

“The extra productivity you get from one person coming in can be dwarfed by the number of people who might go out if they catch the flu from that person who came in contagious,” Mr. Challenger said.

He said the best thing an employer can do is encourage sick workers to stay home. He also said employers should consider allowing employees to work from home if they can. UTMC’s Dr. Rega agrees.

“They should make plans if the flu gets really out of hand to [allow] their employees work outside the business and work at home in order to minimize the spread of the flu,” he said.

However, the nature of many people’s work prohibits that. For them, it’s the old standby of good hygiene reminders — and a big supply of antibacterial wipes.

Dr. Matt Roth, medical director for ProMedica Wellness, said businesses can protect their workers and customers by doing such simple things as wiping down shared equipment, providing hand sanitizer, and encouraging hand washing.

He also recommends businesses provide for their employees to receive a flu shot.

That’s the route Fifth Third Bank took.

The bank set up on-site flu shot clinics and provided vouchers for employees unable to get immunized at the clinic. Fifth Third also sees to it that employees are reminded about where they can get flu shots and about healthy tips for the office.

“We always try to be very proactive, but as we’ve seen the flu crisis hit the nation, we’ve definitely stepped up our communications,” Fifth Third spokesman Carla Nowak said.

Fifth Third provides sick time for both full-time and part-time employees, though Ms. Nowak said the organization hasn’t noticed a higher than average number of workers calling off for illness this year.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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