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Workplace flu shots battle absences

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Flu shots often don't work, but providing workers with convenient access to the vaccines is still employers' best chance of avoiding an officewide outbreak of influenza.

The flu season, which according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention typically runs from October through May, can lead to substantial costs in worker absences and lost productivity, but bringing a flu shot provider on-site or offering vouchers for free flu shots elsewhere can help mitigate that risk.

“There is definitely a return on investment for employers,” said Aon Hewitt Senior Vice President Stephanie Pronk, who is based in Minneapolis. “The convenience factor (of) bringing them on-site makes a difference” in how many employees participate, but having multiple options is best.

There is limited data on the number of employers offering free flu shots to employees, but according to a 2015 Society for Human Resource Management Inc. study, 61% of employers offer on-site flu vaccinations. The survey did not ask how many offer vouchers.

When it comes to the number of people who get the shot, the CDC said just 43.6% of U.S. adults got vaccinated during last year's flu season.

For many, the shot didn't work. Last year's vaccine was poorly matched with the predominant flu strain and only 19% effective overall. But the CDC, which estimates that flu vaccines typically are 50% to 60% effective, expects this year's shot to be better matched with the circulating strains.

Regardless, many employers say it's worth the expense.

“We really do it just because it makes it easy and convenient for our employees,” said Teresa Wilson, compensation and benefits manager at Dublin, Ohio-based Stanley Steemer International Inc. “It often takes time to get to your doctor, get that scheduled, get in, get the shot; and if we can have it on site here ... it just makes it so much easier.”

The carpet cleaning company provides an on-site flu shot clinic for its 450 employees near its headquarters, she said. Vouchers for free flu shots from various providers are available to workers located elsewhere.

Though only about 25% of workers participate in the headquarters on-site clinic, Ms. Wilson said the offer is about doing the “right thing” for the employee — not saving costs.

The cost of an on-site flu shot clinic can vary according to employer size, location and number of sites, said Jo Steinberg, Brookfield, Wisconsin-based CEO of flu shot clinic provider Midland Health Testing Inc.

Midland Health offers flu shots at $25 to $29 a shot for employers with 100 or more workers, but larger employers can negotiate a discount, Ms. Steinberg said. Companies also must pay for a nurse to administer the shots.

Kara Anderson, business development director at Passport Health L.L.C., said most self-insured employers pay it directly, but the Scottsdale, Arizona-based on-site clinic provider will bill the insurer for fully insured companies in some cases.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the flu shot is covered as part of preventive care with no copayment when delivered through an in-network provider.

Like at Midland Health, Ms. Anderson said flu shot prices depend on employer size and location. Passport Health usually expects about one-quarter to one-third of employees at a location to get the shot.

It's important “to think about how you market (the clinic) to your employees,” Ms. Anderson said. “The more we can get that word out with posters or fliers or email campaigns the better. If you're going to make the effort, make sure everybody is aware and understands and, hopefully, participates.”

While flu shots are “a good preventative measure,” employers should not pressure employees to get the shot, said David Lewis, president and CEO of human resources outsourcing and consulting firm OperationsInc L.L.C. in Norwalk, Connecticut.

“People may feel like it's a bit of an intrusion and they may feel a bit pressured, and that's not something that you want to have happen,” Mr. Lewis said.

Employers can best promote an on-site flu shot clinic by making workers aware that it's available and that it's voluntary, he said.

New York-based McGraw-Hill Education Inc. doesn't offer an on-site clinic, but it does provide free flu shots for health plan members at pharmacies partnering with United Healthcare Inc. as well as vouchers to employees not on the health plan.

Last flu season, about 800 of McGraw-Hill Education's 3,600 U.S. employees, as well as 550 dependents, got flu shots through the two programs, said Andrea Kuglstatter, New York-based senior director of benefits.

Aside from allowing employees to “take charge of their own health,” the free flu shot effort also helps the publisher “reduce the chance employees catch the flu and have to miss work, or for that matter come to work and bring back the flu to their co-workers and spread it,” she said.

“We haven't measured how much time we might have lost as a result of (the flu), but any time you make up ... has to be worth it,” Ms. Kuglstatter said.