For under-the-weather workers, the decision to stay home or push through a day at the office always has been a hand-wringing one. Now, concerns over H1N1 flu, coupled with a lean economy, are putting workers' sick-leave dilemmas under the microscope.
"Since the recession started . . . it's been a more heated issue of workers really having to protect their jobs and needing to make sure they're in the office," said Tom Gimbel, chief executive of the LaSalle Network, a recruiting and staffing firm. H1N1 means that "more than ever, employers are saying now, 'If you're sick, don't come in, because it's so contagious.' "
While many businesses might not be changing their official sick-leave policies, they are taking steps to deal with H1N1, also known as the swine flu, and potential absenteeism.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that those with flulike symptoms stay home for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone. This means some workers could be out for a week or more, putting a strain on the business and the worker.
Some employees have to ration their sick days carefully or may not have any paid time off. Others weigh the fear of making a bad impression against the risk of prolonging an illness and feeling worse.
"It's very hard to take off of work at my job," said Noor Aweidah, who works for the president of a marketing firm and helps bring in new clients. "Things being the way they are today, new business is a real priority. If I'm not there, meetings are not happening, calls are not taking place."
Even with her concerns, Aweidah recently had to take a rare day off to keep some incipient flulike symptoms from worsening. She canceled a client meeting and made sure the interns under her supervision knew their daily tasks, then lay down on her couch to watch bad movies and drink tea.
The client was understanding about needing to reschedule, she said.
"It's hard being in a creative environment to not be on your A game, especially when you're interfacing with clients," Aweidah said. "But they don't want to meet with someone who's coughing or sweating."
Managers also have to balance taking care of their workers with keeping their offices staffed.
In September, Harvard School of Public Health published the results of a national survey showing that only one-third of businesses thought they could avoid "severe operational problems" for two weeks if H1N1 felled half of their work force. The figure dropped to 22 percent for businesses thinking they could avoid serious issues for a month.
Gimbel said absenteeism has been contained so far. For employees who are fretting about missing work because of their own illness, or that of a child or elderly parent, the key is "reassuring your boss that the work you're supposed to be doing is still getting done," Gimbel said.
Companies also are thinking about contingency plans.
"We continue to engage in conversations about what would happen if we got one swine flu case or five," said Aggie Hellyer, human resources manager at Planmeca, a dental equipment manufacturer that has roughly half of its 85 employees in the office regularly.
"You have to make the business survive on limited resources. But we're pretty well-prepared."
Hellyer said the company, unlike previous flu seasons, ordered pamphlets and posters on germs and effective hand-washing this year. Employees who exceed their five paid sick days can talk to their managers to make up the extra time. So far, there have been only scattered absences and no H1N1 cases. In the meantime, Planmeca is exploring options for ill employees to work from home.
Remote access is another important strategy for the five-person Illinois Podiatric Medical Association, where one absence amounts to a 20 percent reduction in work force.
"If anyone is the worst offender about coming in when they're sick, it's me," said executive director Mary Feeley, adding that she's gotten more comfortable with staying home and logging in from afar. "I can stay home, recuperate, fight it better and still get some work done. Otherwise, that stress adds to not healing, and then you do come in too soon, and working a 12-hour day trying to catch up on what you missed makes it worse for you."
This year, some companies are exercising extra caution about welcoming back employees from their time off.
Elizabeth Stiles woke up recently with a 102-degree temperature but still dragged herself to her job handling back-office operations at a recruiting and staffing firm. Looking back, the decision wasn't the wisest, Stiles acknowledged. But she was proud of her perfect attendance in high school and was keen on making a good impression at work.
"It's my first job, and I don't really want to start off on the wrong foot," said Stiles, who moved to Chicago from Baltimore last year.
Stiles was sent home halfway through the day and tested positive for H1N1 the next day. About a week later, after she had recovered, her doctor said she could return to work if she no longer had a fever. When Stiles phoned her boss, she found she had to submit a doctor's note to human resources, something she hasn't had to produce since junior high.
Stiles was able to work from home for a few days during her illness. But "four days off is kind of hard," she said.
Even one missed day can be problematic. Laurie Eastman, who teaches Web and graphic design at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago and the International Academy of Design and Technology, developed flulike symptoms last month and had to find a substitute for two classes.
"I don't get paid if I'm not here," said Eastman, who considers it fortunate that she missed only one day of class. "Also, when I'm not here, the students fall behind in their lessons."
But Eastman said she needed to take the day off, for her own health and that of her students. When she returned, she noticed that seasonal flu had knocked out nearly one-third of the attendees in one of her classes.
"That was the deciding factor, not wanting to get my students sick," she said.