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CDC says relaxing rules of sick leave would help during flu outbreak

Cindy Forbes cleans her hands between customers Thursday at Cash Wise Foods in Willmar. Customers and employees of the grocery store have access to sanitizer for their hands, grocery carts or other surfaces. Gary Miller/West Central Tribune

WILLMAR -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending employers relax their requirement for a doctor's note to validate illness for employees who were out sick with the flu.

"This would be very helpful for busy clinics and health care providers and would allow health care providers to have more time to care for those who are sick,'' says Chery Johnson with Kandiyohi County Public Health.

The recommendation is included in the CDC's new "Guidance for Businesses and Employers To Plan and Respond to the 2009-2010 Influenza Season.''

The CDC recommendation is timely because Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar issued a press release Wednesday, which said in part, "For the safety of our community, it is not recommended that people come to their health care provider to receive a note to return to work or school.''

The CDC guidance, published Aug. 19, recommends action that non-health care employers should take to decrease the spread of seasonal flu and the 2009 H1N1 flu, commonly called swine flu, in the workplace and to help business continuity during the 2009-2010 flu season.

The guidance includes additional strategies to use if flu conditions become more severe, and has new recommendations regarding when a worker who is ill with influenza may return to work.

The CDC recommends workers who have influenza-like illness stay home and not return to work until at least 24 hours after their fever has resolved.

"Regardless of the size of the business or the function or services that you provide, all employers should plan now to allow and encourage sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs,'' the CDC said.

The CDC recommends this strategy for all levels of severity and employers should plan for how they will operate if there is significant absenteeism from sick workers.

The 12-page guidance says, among other things, that employers should expect sick workers to be out for about 3 to 5 days in most cases and encourages employers to develop non-punitive leave policies.

"Do not require a doctor's note for workers who are ill with influenza-like illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as doctor's offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and may not be able to provide such documentation in a timely way,'' the CDC says.

Area companies are taking steps to reduce the effect of flu on their businesses and employees.

Diane Maurice, who works in marketing and customer service for Kandiyohi Power Cooperative of Spicer, says the staff discussed the policy that requires employees who are out sick longer than 3 days to obtain a doctor's validation of the illness.

However, she indicated the company will be flexible.

"We understand that if it truly comes full-blown like what they're talking about, we're going to work with our employees -- go on good graces,'' Maurice said.

She said the cooperative feels comfortable it has planned to meet the needs of customers and employees. A number of workers have received seasonal flu shots. Hand sanitizers have been given to all employees and they've been asked to stay home if they have symptoms.

The cooperative, considered an essential service, provides electricity to customers mainly in Kandiyohi County. In the event the flu outbreak worsens, the cooperative will lock the doors to the public, and the 33 employees know that they might be asked to do shift work.

Also, the co-op has agreements with contractors to help restore power if service is cut and a large number of employees are sick, according to Maurice.

Shane Theisen, store manager at Cash Wise Foods in Willmar, said notices posted in break rooms remind all 230 part-time and full-time employees of the importance of washing their hands. He said flu shots are offered to employees at a discount if they don't have insurance. Also, customers are using sanitizing wipes on grocery carts.

Hormel Foods, parent company of Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar, has a long-standing business continuity plan, which includes influenza preparedness, said Julie Craven, vice president of corporate communications.

Greg Knochenmus, safety and health director at First District Association in Litchfield, said the company has focused on keeping all 135 employees and their families healthy through the use of shots and medical information.

The company, which produces cheese, whey products and fluid milk, completed seasonal flu vaccinations on Thursday and has plans to receive the H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available, he said.

"The biggest step is getting information out there, getting the facts to our employees, take the fear factor out of it and saying we can work through this,'' Knochenmus said.


David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150