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Chaim Gross, 24, is known as "Patient Zero" at his company Zeno Radio. About half of the workers have fallen ill in the past couple of months. (NPR)

Sick Workers' Dilemma: Stay Home Or Go To Work?

Jan 16, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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Lauren Kay, 23, runs SmartSitting, a nanny and baby-sitter agency in Brooklyn. She says about one-fifth of her nannies have called in sick in the past three weeks.

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As the earliest flu outbreak in years continues to claim victims, businesses are taking a hit, too. They're faced with an unsolvable problem: If they tell too many sick employees to stay home, the work doesn't get done. But when people sick with flu and other bugs show up, they're spreading illness through the workplace.

It's a dilemma the staff at Zeno Radio, a media technology company in Midtown Manhattan, has seen unfold this winter.

Around here, Chaim Gross is known as "Patient Zero." Gross was the first one in his office to get sick about three months ago. But he kept coming to work.

"Then, as I started feeling better, David started getting sick, and he was stuck at home for like three days, throwing up and everything," Gross says.

And then half of the 20 workers here started dropping like flies.

"Then Keith went home sick. Um, Jack was actually out before," Gross continues. "Charles missed a few days."

And now, thanks to the domino effect that Gross says he might have set in motion, Deanna Mitchell from sales and marketing also got the flu. But she showed up to work, too.

"I really wanted to come in because today was important meetings," Mitchell explains.

Every worker at Zeno Radio receives six sick days a year, but it doesn't matter. Gross says he has only taken one day off in the past eight months, even after becoming the walking plague. Why? Because he says his small company needs him, and he loves hanging out with his colleagues.

"This puts employers in a bit of a bind," says Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who's now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, "because on the one hand, they need to get work done, and they'll fall behind if the work is not done. But if you encourage people to come into the office, or people feel pressured to go into the office, they might spread the flu and make the situation worse."

Here's the advice businesses are getting: Reduce your meetings, maybe even set up 3-foot buffer zones around sick workers, or just tell your flu-stricken employees to work from home. But for some businesses, working from home just isn't an option.

Take, for example, SmartSitting, a nanny and baby-sitting agency based in Brooklyn. Lauren Kay runs the business and says almost 20 percent of her sitters have called in sick in the past three weeks.

"Generally, it's a baby, and the sitter goes and gets the flu from the baby, and then the sitter then has to cancel a number of future appointments because they're sick," Kay says. "It's really like all of New York City has sort of been tied together by a network of sitters, and everyone's just trying to stay healthy."

Kay's agency has been stuck finding replacements at the last minute. It's up to parents to decide whether to pay sick days to the regular nannies who missed work. Kay says many of the parents her business works with do pay those days — but, she says, generally, a lot of sitters don't feel empowered to ask for those days.

"It's hard to inconvenience a family and say, 'Hey, I can't come in for work tomorrow, and also can you pay me?' " Kay says.

The workers who do get paid when they're out sick are the lucky ones. About 40 percent of workers today actually don't get sick days, and that's why so many work while under the weather, says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.

"The economy is still on shaky ground," explains Challenger, "and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs, and so they're reluctant to call in sick or even use their vacation days."

The combination of those sick employees infecting others at work and the sick workers staying home for days means businesses pay a high price during these sneezy months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the flu costs employers about $10.4 billion every year — in health care expenses and lost productivity.

But some employers are fortunate — like Morris Berger, the boss at Zeno Radio. He says productivity actually didn't slow down much this winter.

"No, I think it's getting better, actually. So maybe we don't need all these employees," Berger says laughing.

What happened to save the company was one small blessing amid its epidemic: The flu toppled only one person at a time.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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