Flu spreads small busi­nesses thin

Empty desks a symptom as em­ploy­ees’ sick calls grow

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - MUTUAL FUNDS - JOYCE M. ROSEN­BERG

NEW YORK — The flu sea­son has slammed many small busi­nesses, weak­en­ing al­ready thin staffing lev­els and forc­ing some own­ers to scram­ble to cover shifts or get the work done.

All but five of the 26 staff mem­bers at BusBank, a trans­porta­tion book­ing ser­vice, have been sick at some point this sea­son. On the worst day so far, six peo­ple were out sick or car­ing for chil­dren with the flu, and four oth­ers were on al­ready planned days off.

“It has been hard for us to keep up, with lots of folks run­ning backup for each other,” said Bran­don Dud­ley, vice pres­i­dent of the Chicagob­ased com­pany that ar­ranges bus char­ters for events rang­ing from nights on the town to long-dis­tance trips.

Hu­man re­sources con­sul­tants have been hear­ing from com­pany own­ers over­whelmed by flu-re­lated ab­sences. In its lat­est re­port, the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion said 35 states had moder­ate to high lev­els of flu cases. More than 5 per­cent of peo­ple seek­ing med­i­cal help com­plained of flu-like symp­toms dur­ing the week that ended Feb. 11, up from a base­line of 2.2 per­cent, the CDC said.

In Ar­kan­sas, the flu virus is con­sid­ered wide­spread, the Ar­kan­sas Health De­part­ment said ear­lier this month.

“Small busi­nesses’ op­er­a­tions are so lean that hav­ing two peo­ple sick at one time is a very big im­pact,” said Amy Mar­cum, a hu­man-re­sources con­sul­tant with Hous­ton­based Insper­ity.

Telecom­mut­ing has

helped lessen the flu’s im­pact on com­pa­nies like BusBank, where em­ploy­ees mainly work on lap­tops. So cus­tomers are get­ting their buses, Dud­ley says. But some projects such as up­dat­ing the com­pany’s web­site have had to be de­layed.

When Denise Stern’s staff mem­bers are sick, they can’t work, pe­riod. Stern owns Let Mommy Sleep, a fran­chise com­pany that pro­vides overnight baby care for chil­dren rang­ing from new­born to 6 months old — and some­one who’s sick can­not care for an in­fant. At times dur­ing this flu sea­son, Stern has had a quar­ter of her more than 20 care­givers calling out sick.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Stern, who founded Let Mommy Sleep and runs the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-area branch of her com­pany. Let Mommy Sleep also has fran­chises in north­ern New Jersey and Philadel­phia.

When a care­giver is ill, Stern will try to call in a backup. But so many em­ploy­ees have been sick that at times

she ei­ther has no one avail­able, or found the fam­ily is re­luc­tant to have a care­giver with whom they’re not fa­mil­iar.

“I can’t tell you how aw­ful it is to be speak­ing with a mom on the verge of tears be­cause we don’t have staff to help,” said Stern, who es­ti­mates her prof­its are down 15 per­cent for Fe­bru­ary.

At BOCA Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as many as four em­ploy­ees at a time have been sick with ei­ther the flu or a stom­ach virus.

“It’s the gnarli­est flu sea­son we’ve seen in 10 years,” said Ash­ley Brein­linger, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the San Fran­cisco-based pub­lic re­la­tions firm. “Peo­ple have been sicker than I’ve ever seen.”

The bugs have been so bad that Brein­linger and CEO Kath­leen Shana­han have asked em­ploy­ees when they first start feel­ing un­well to stay home and not spread their germs.

Em­ploy­ees’ abil­ity to work from home as much as pos­si­ble has lim­ited the im­pact on BOCA’s pro­duc­tiv­ity, and the com­pany is set up so ev­ery­one has a backup to fin­ish projects. An­other sav­ing grace is that clients are em­pathiz­ing, not com­plain­ing.

“Clients are sick too, so they’re un­der­stand­ing,” Brein­linger says.

With the flu sea­son ex­pected to last into the spring, Insper­ity’s Mar­cum ad­vises busi­ness own­ers to be proac­tive to pro­tect em­ploy­ees’ health as well as com­pany op­er­a­tions. Em­ploy­ees should be en­cour­aged to work at home if they’re not feel­ing well, and to get flu shots if they haven’t al­ready done so. Some com­pa­nies will bring in med­i­cal per­son­nel to ad­min­is­ter shots on site.

Now is also the time to cre­ate backup plans, des­ig­nat­ing which staffers will cover for oth­ers. Some own­ers might also want to think in ad­vance about ar­rang­ing to get tem­po­rary help if needed.

Kris­ten Bur­ris es­ti­mates she lost a third of her work­ing days in Jan­uary when she was sick three times and her son was also ill.

“It’s def­i­nitely the worst flu sea­son we have ex­pe­ri­enced in years,” says Bur­ris, co-owner of Ea­gle Acupunc­ture in Ea­gle, Idaho.

Her hus­band, Tony, cov­ered the prac­tice as best he could. But many clients whose ses­sions were can­celed just waited till their next ap­point­ment. Prac­tice hours lost to the flu came on top of can­cel­la­tions forced by record snow­fall in Idaho last month.

Bur­ris is adding 12 ex­tra hours to her weekly sched­ule in hopes of re­coup­ing some in­come. But the rest? “It’s 100 per­cent lost,” she says.

AP/ERIC RIS­BERG

Ash­ley Brein­linger, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at BOCA Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, works at her of­fice desk in San Fran­cisco ear­lier this month.

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