- Associated Press - Monday, January 14, 2013

Nearly half the 70 employees at a Ford dealership in Clarksville, Ind., have been out sick at some point in the past month. It didn’t have to be that way, according to the boss.

“If people had stayed home in the first place, a lot of times that spread wouldn’t have happened,” said Marty Book, a vice president at Carriage Ford. “But people really want to get out and do their jobs, and sometimes that’s a detriment.”

The flu season that has struck early and hard across the U.S. is putting businesses and employees alike in a bind. In this shaky economy, many Americans are reluctant to call in sick, something that can backfire for their employers.

Flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. The only states without widespread flu were California, Mississippi and Hawaii. And the main strain of the virus circulating tends to make people sicker than usual.

Blake Fleetwood, president of Cook Travel in New York, said his agency is operating with less than 40 percent of its full-time staff because of the flu and other ailments.

“The people here are working longer hours, and it puts a lot of strain on everyone,” Mr. Fleetwood said. “You don’t know whether to ask people with the flu to come in or not.” He said the flu is also taking its toll on business as customers cancel their travel plans: “People are getting the flu and they’re reduced to a shriveling little mess and don’t feel like going anywhere.”

Many workers go to the office even when they’re sick because they are worried about losing their jobs, said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employer consulting firm.

Other employees report for work out of financial necessity, since roughly 40 percent of U.S. workers don’t get paid if they are out sick. Some simply have a strong work ethic and feel obligated to show up.

Flu season typically costs employers $10.4 billion for hospitalization and doctor’s office visits, according to the CDC.

That does not include the costs of lost productivity from absences.

At Carriage Ford, Mr. Book said the company plans to make flu shots mandatory for all employees.

Linda Doyle, CEO of the Northcrest Community retirement home in Ames, Iowa, said the company took that step this year for its 120 employees, providing the shots at no cost. It is also supplying face masks for all staff.

And no one is expected to come into work if sick, she said.

So far, the company hasn’t seen an outbreak of flu cases.

“You keep your fingers crossed and hope it continues this way,” Ms. Doyle said. “You see the news and it’s frightening. We just want to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to keep everyone healthy. Cleanliness is really the key to it. Washing your hands. Wash, wash, wash.”

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