Study: Combat flu with paid sick days

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Allowing all employees access to paid sick days would reduce the spread of flu, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh finds.

The researchers used a computer model to simulate a flu outbreak in Allegheny County. They found that increasing access to paid sick leave could significantly reduce the spread of influenza here.

According to Supriya Kumar, a post-doctoral fellow and the investigation's lead author, the results suggest that policymakers in Allegheny County and beyond should consider mandating paid sick leave or a paid "flu day" as ways to combat the spread of the flu.

"Influenza has a huge burden of costs on the United States," Ms. Kumar said. "We found that if you increase the proportion of people staying home, if you increase how long each person stays home for one additional day, you reduce influenza."

To arrive at the findings, Ms. Kumar and her colleagues calculated how many people each resident of the county interacted with on a daily basis -- at work, at school or at home. Then, the researchers simulated introducing the flu into the population and they varied how many people took off from work and for how many days.

The longer a person took off from work, the less he or she came into contact with others, giving the flu fewer chances to spread.

According to data from previous studies on workplace absenteeism, 72 percent of employees with paid sick leave take time off from work when they have the flu. For workers without paid sick leave, 52 percent take time off.

On average, employees with the flu take 1.7 days off before returning back to work.

The Pitt School of Public Health researchers modeled two potential policies to increase paid sick leave. In their first model, the researchers mimicked government mandated sick leave by having 72 percent of the entire county population take 1.7 days off from work. Influenza in the population decreased by 6 percent.

In their second model, the researchers instead awarded every employee one paid "flu day." In this simulation, 72 percent of the employees with paid sick leave took 2.7 days off, while 52 percent of employees without paid sick leave took one day off. In this case, influenza fell by nearly 25 percent.

According to the World Health Organization, influenza costs the American economy at least $71 billion each year in loss of life, hospitalization, lost earnings and lower productivity.

"One of the things we recommend is offering a sick leave, at least during influenza season," said Ron Voorhees, acting director of the Allegheny County Health Department. "It is in the best interest of the employer, and it may be cost-effective to pay the first person to stay home, so it doesn't spread."

Of course, the likelihood of providing paid sick leave varies by the size of the employer. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 53 percent of small businesses, defined as having less than 50 employees, offered paid sick leave, while 85 percent of large businesses, with 500 employees or more, provided the same.

Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at the healthcare consulting firm Mercer, noted factors such as income and the ability to work remotely also have an impact on whether an employee comes to work with the flu.

But, he cautioned, even if more employers start granting sick leave, they will incur additional costs because employees may use those days when they are not ill.

"The cost would need to recognize time off not just for employees with the flu, but also employees who take time off because they think they have the flu but don't, as well as overall fraud," he said.

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Michelle Hackman: mhackman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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