Vaccinate Your Small Business: How to minimize the impact of this year's flu outbreak on your bottom line

By Reed Richardson

As the H1N1 flu outbreak looks to spread throughout the upcoming winter, many small businesses could find the disease a serious threat to their profitability and, perhaps, long-term survivability. Consequently, it's a good idea for entrepreneurs to take some immediate steps-and if you have already, consider some additional measures-to mitigate the damage a flu outbreak might have upon your business's employees, productivity, and bottom line.

First, Get Informed


Already, federal estimates put the economic costs to the overall U.S. economy at between $50 to $100 billion, but despite the widespread news coverage of the H1N1-or "swine"-flu outbreak last year and the World Health Organization's classification of the flu's rapid spread as a "pandemic" this past summer, many Americans still have questions about the disease. For business owners trying to get a handle on this flu, a good primer on the disease and how it differs from the seasonal variant can be found at the Center for Disease Control's H1N1 information page. To get a more business-focused perspective on the disease, which will better enable you to assess the flu's potential impact on your company and build a reaction plan to counter it, good resources to check out include the National Federation of Independent Business's flu preparation webpage as well as the CDC's H1N1 flu business guidance and online toolkit. There, you will find a list of helpful planning steps as well as a number of widgets and social media tools that can be added to your company website to keep employees informed about the flu.


As it stands now, working adults-those over 23 years in age and seniors over 65 especially-have been found to be at a much lower risk of contracting and succumbing to the H1N1 flu virus than children and young adults, unless those adults also suffer from asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or other complicating health issues. Likewise, most small business office environments will be at much lower risk for infection than those who work in professions that tend to involve a lot of daily contact with others, particularly those on the front line of the health care industry. Still, for entrepreneurs that work primarily in office environments, you might consider telecommuting or staggered work hours as ways to both minimize the number of workers congregating together at one time and to provide flexibility to employees who might have to unexpectedly care for children in the event of a sudden school closure.


Not every small business is at low risk for flu, however. A recent occupational risk pyramid developed by OSHA ranked employees of retail businesses as having the same "medium-level" chance of H1N1 flu infection as those who work as school nurses, teachers, and transit workers. As a result, small retail business owners would be wise to closely monitor sales floor employees and cashiers for any signs of flu-like symptoms and to strongly consider adopting more aggressive preventative measures like cross-training employees in different job functions, enforcing strict hygiene rules, erecting hands-free, alcohol-based, sanitizing stations in the workplace, and encouraging employees to get the H1N1 flu vaccine as soon as possible.


Costs vs. Benefits of Flu Vaccine


Nearly 18 months after the H1N1 flu's first appearance, Americans still are of two minds about the disease and its accompanying vaccine. According to several surveys, including this recent a Harvard poll, a significant minority is eager to get inoculated, but more than half of Americans are still not certain they want to get the vaccine. This reluctance has several causes: Many justify it because they just don't perceive the H1N1 flu virus as much of a threat. (This is perhaps not so surprising, as only 20% to 30% of Americans typically get the seasonal flu shot.) Others have expressed frustration about the vaccine's initial availability. (Slower than expected growth in chicken eggs-the vaccine's incubation crucible-meant that only 40 million doses were available through mid-November, but production is now ramping up.) And some shy away over safety concerns, citing the vaccine's relative newness. (The production and manufacturing method for the H1N1 virus is the same as that of the seasonal flu, however, which has a long track record of being safe.) The information on the CDC's website can allay many of these fears and counter any erroneous beliefs about the vaccine, however.


But despite these qualms among individuals, many leaders in the business community have chosen to pursue an aggressive inoculation campaign. In fact, in an August survey by the Business Roundtable, that organization's members listed getting enough vaccine for company employees as the top concern when it comes to hedging against the H1N1's economic impact. "The results of our 2009 Flu Season Survey show that U.S. companies are taking the flu very seriously and making great efforts to prepare appropriately," said Michael Dan, Chairman, chair of Business Roundtable's Partnership for Disaster Response.


In yet another indication of how seriously the U.S. business community is willing to go to encourage vaccinations against the H1N1 flu, several large health insurers-Blue Cross & Blue Shield, UnitedHealthCare, Aetna, and Cigna among them-have recently volunteered to cover the full cost of H1N1 flu vaccines to all their policyholders. This now lets some small business owners encourage their employees to get the vaccine in good conscience, knowing that they're not asking their workers to take on extra financial costs. And even for small business owners that get their company's health coverage elsewhere, this precedent should be encouraging, as other health insurance companies are now expected to follow suit. (To find a nearby H1N1 vaccine dispensary, check out the CDC's online flu shot locator.)


A Little Absenteeism Can Prevent A Lot of Absenteeism


For all the many helpful steps a small company can take with regards to the H1N1 flu, however, the two main takeaways on minimizing the flu's impact on your business are pretty simple: 1) Sick workers should stay home and 2) Sick employees found at work should be asked to go home. Now, this can be a tough call for some small business owners, since many of them employ so few workers that each one often plays something of an invaluable role in the company. But a willingness to look the other way or to openly encourage obviously sick employees to "tough it out" at work this flu season could be disastrous. Because of instead of losing just a few employees for three to five days, permitting the prolonged presence of one or two sick workers in your office might eventually result in a widespread outbreak, one that affects most of your staff for up to two weeks or more. In fact, a Harvard School of Public Health study from this past summer found that only one third of the more than 1,000 companies surveyed believed they could avoid serious operational problems if they lost half of their employees for such a length of time.


Of course, working against this push to aggressively send sick workers home is a worry among some employees that they might not have enough sick time to cover their absence. Consequently, small business owners may have questions about how they can tailor their company's existing paid time-off policies to better fit the unique circumstances caused by the H1N1 flu. A good primer on frequently asked questions about this topic can be found at the NFIB's online flu FAQ.


To prevent financial concerns from trumping worries over the flu's spread, some large companies have temporarily relaxed their paid time-off policies or removed their annual cap on sick days. Small business owners might consider adopting this tactic or letting employees take an "advance" on future sick days to ensure they don't have to choose between their health and their paycheck. And even if your small business has no formal paid time-off policies in the first place, it's still a good idea to clarify to your employees that they won't be penalized for staying home a week or more if infected with the flu. Even Congress looks like it will address this issue, with emergency legislation now being drafted in both the House and Senate that would temporarily guarantee either five or seven paid sick days for all those infected with the flu.

Referenced Links

Center for Disease Control H1N1 Information Page (


Center for Disease Control H1N1 Flu Business Guidance (


Center for Disease Control H1N1 Online Toolkit (


Center for Disease Control Online Flu Shot Locator (


National Federation of Independent Business Flu Preparation Webpage (


OSHA Occupational Risk Pyramid (


Harvard Poll (


Business Roudtable August Survey (


Insurers Covering H1N1 Flu Shots (