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Balancing Act: Should Sick Workers Stay Home?

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By Cindy Krischer Goodman

(MCT)—After four days in bed with the flu, Cindy Papale returned to her office only to have a colleague come in sniffling and coughing, touching common surfaces and spreading germs. Within a few days, Papale was out again with a fever. “If people would stay home, then the rest of us might not get sick, too,” she says.

Flu season is here with a vengeance, and it can be tough on the workplace, creating resentment among co-workers, testing flexibility policies and putting the boss in awkward situations. Whether motivated by fear of losing their jobs, a desire to look responsible, a need for income or reluctance to give up vacation days, employees inevitably come to work sick. Some even put up a fight when colleagues or a boss suggests they go home.

“When you work in a close environment, if someone is not telling you to go home, they’re thinking it,” explained Papale, an administrative assistant in a Miami-area office. “We’re all just trying to stay well.”

Experts are calling this flu season the worst in a decade, predicting that at least 20 percent of the population has fallen or will become ill. In the past few weeks, odds are that if you haven’t had the flu, you know someone who has had it.

For businesses, a single flu-struck worker can have a domino effect. According to a new survey from the office supply company Staples, nearly 90 percent of office workers come to work even when they know they are sick. The California-based Disability Management Employer Coalition estimates that employees who come to work with the flu increase lost workdays by 10 percent to 30 percent.

Still, some workplaces seem blind to the potential cost. One nonprofit employee complained that in her workplace, if you call in sick, the boss treats you like you’re a slacker and even compliments the work ethic of those who come to the workplace sniffling. Others say they are given a cold shoulder by fellow workers when they ask to work from home.

Office manager Rosie Toledo doesn’t agree with that line of thinking at all. “You have to think about the whole office,” she says. Toledo, who manages a Miami medical office, says she has no qualms about telling sick employees not to come in, or to go home if they come in ill.

“If you work somewhere with little interaction with others and can quarantine yourself, then it’s understandable to come in,’’ says Toledo. “But we interact with patients. I’d rather struggle without a person than have someone sick in the office.”

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