It would take a tough bug to make it past Jill Overkamp at Garbo's Salon and Spa at Regency Court.
While her stylists go to work with hair spray, the salon manager is picking up Lysol spray and attacking the front counter, where cashiers mingle with customers, credit cards and possibly cold and flu viruses
“About four or five times a day, we spray all the countertops,” Overkamp said. “We use Clorox wipes on the phone probably hourly. Even the pens — I take the pen canister and just douse it with Lysol three or four times a day.”
It's all part of the effort to keep staff members and customers healthy during this year's severe flu season. Some businesses, especially smaller operations, said they are taking new measures to ward off illness, while larger corporations are keeping up measures put in place in recent years amid concerns about pandemic flu (remember the 2005 spread of avian flu?).
While no mass workplace absences have been reported locally so far this year, businesses are reminding employees to stay home if they are ill.
Mutual of Omaha spokesman Jim Nolan said official absenteeism rates aren't up among the firm's 4,000 Omaha workers, but the company tracks only absences of four days or more. Anecdotally, he said, managers are reporting more workers staying home.
“We're encouraging folks to use good judgment if they're not feeling well — whether to come to work or not,” Nolan said. For those at the office, he said, “hand sanitizer is widely available.”
Mutual provided 1,600 flu shots at its home office this fall, with more likely getting the immunization from health care providers or pharmacies.
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, a Chicago 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That doesn't include the costs of lost productivity.
Challenger and others say companies are rethinking their sickness policies, waking up to the fact that the little gain from one person coming to work sick isn't worth it if 10 to 20 others then get sick.
Adi Pour, health director of the Douglas County Health Department, said it's important that businesses make sure employees know to stay home if ill or have options to work from home
“We as employers need to ensure that employees know that it's OK — that it's actually preferable — if they stay home when they are sick. They are only infecting others and increasing the burden to the business.”
She said Douglas County had 950 flu cases as of Tuesday afternoon, compared with 337 in the entire 2011-12 flu season and 599 two years ago.
“At this time I do not see that we have reached the peak yet,” Pour said. “We are looking at a very active influenza season.”
A sampling of prevention efforts by area companies:
>> Union Pacific's health services department has offered free flu shots to the firm's 4,400 Omaha employees and put notes in the company newsletter on ways to prevent the flu and to identify symptoms.
>> Nebraska Furniture Mart is continuing efforts put in place several years ago: providing sanitary wipes for customers to clean the handles of shopping carts, and wiping down display models of electronics daily.
>> At Pinnacle Fitness, too, “We've been doing our usual wiping down of our equipment after classes,” wellness coordinator Lori Bakker said.
>> At Wheatfields cafe, co-owner Ron Popp in morning “huddles” this week reminded workers to wash their hands often. “We reminded them that we have those sanitizer stations in the dining room, and to use those, and just to try to use the soap as much as possible.”
The soap is from his One Pacific Place neighbor Bath & Body Works, an effort to make it more fun for workers to wash up. This week's scent was summery watermelon.
“It costs a lot more money that way, but it does encourage everybody to wash their hands more,” Popp said.
Worker absenteeism hasn't been high enough to affect operations at Wheatfields, with not more than one staffer out at a time, Popp said. But he's noticed an unusual amount of chatter from customers about the flu.
“They're coming in and talking about their neighbors, or they haven't been here for a while because of the flu.”
One restaurant used the flu season as a chance to promote its practice of having no menus. Dixie Quick's in Council Bluffs lists its ever-changing entrees on a big chalkboard, which owner Rob Gilmer touted in a Facebook post Jan. 5. He mentioned a “Dr. Oz” test of New York City restaurant menus that found bacteria on the pages.
“This is one less thing you have to handle as a customer,” he said.
When the restaurant moved in 2011, Gilmer also designed the restrooms to limit the spread of germs. The lightweight doors open with just a push of an elbow or hip, and the sink is in the hallway outside the restroom so there's no handle to touch once you've washed your hands.
The measures, along with extra hand sinks for kitchen staff, seem to be paying off. “No one has been out sick,” in his staff of about 20, Gilmer said.
Some businesses benefit when people fear the flu.
“We're selling a lot more immune support,” said Rob Timm, manager at the Vitamin Shoppe at 3404 S. 144th St. “They're coming in and asking, 'What can I take?'”
Some keys to curbing the spread of flu and other viruses in the workplace include:
>> Cleanliness, including the wiping down of shared spaces and regular handwashing.
>> Employers can hold meetings via conference calls, stagger shifts so that fewer people are on the job at the same time and avoid handshaking.
>> Individuals can arm themselves with sanitizers and wipes, touch their faces less often and wash hands more often, especially after contacting elevator buttons, stair rails and door handles in public places.
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