While employers expect more sick days this flu season, most do not believe it will have a debilitating effect. That is because so few people get vaccinated even when there isn't a shortage, and only a small part of the population actually gets the flu every year.
Walter Industries Inc. (search), a homebuilder in Tampa, Fla., had offered its 5,200 employees free flu shots cancel its program this year. Instead, it will publish an article in its newsletter about how to avoid the flu, using information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search).
Recommendations include washing hands frequently and staying home when sick — but sending the latter message to employees is tricky, said spokesman John McNeilly.
"It is a fine line," he said. "We don't want them to stay home if they just have a sniffle."
Flu vaccine programs are popular with employers: The shots save a company an average of $13.66 per person vaccinated, a 2001 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine (search) found. Vaccination prevents 12.3 work day absences and 2.5 doctor visits per 100 people who get the shots.
But the nation's flu vaccine supply was cut in half last week after British regulators unexpectedly suspended the license of Chiron Corp. (CHIR), citing manufacturing problems at a Liverpool plant. Chiron (search) was supposed to supply the United States with 46 million to 48 million does of flu vaccine.
"There will be absenteeism and there may be strains at companies," said Shelly Wolff, national practice leader for health and productivity at the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.
But Wolff pointed out that only 7 percent to 20 percent suffer from the flu in any given season, according to the CDC. Plus, she said no one knows how severe the season will be or where it will be most prominent.
Another mitigating factor is that few people actually participate in inoculation programs. Consulting firm Towers Perrin found that when its clients offer flu shots, only 5 percent to 15 percent of employees take advantage of them. The CDC said only 25 percent of people over the age of 5 months got a flu shot last year.
Ronald Mason of Towers Perrin said the shortage will have the largest effect on manufacturing companies, because they will either have to hire replacement workers or accept lower productivity if the flu season is severe. He estimated each flu case costs a manufacturer between $300 and $600.
The Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler (DCX) is going ahead with a vaccine program that started earlier this month for its 76,000 employees, even though the automaker said it got less of the vaccine than it requested.
"DaimlerChrysler makes 1 percent of America's GDP," Chrysler spokesman David Elshoff said. "We think we have to keep America working."