Work Absences Hit Five-Year High in January

Labor Department data show that the number of workers who stayed home in January was unusually high.

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The number of people taking sick days hit a nearly five-year high in January, according to the labor Department. Figures from the department's monthly Current Population Survey show an estimated 1.2 million workers didn't punch the clock at all during the survey reference week because they were sick, injured, or had doctor appointments. An additional 2.9 million full-time employees worked part-time for the same reasons.

Those are the highest estimates since February 2008, when 1.3 million workers stayed home and 3.3 million worked part-time instead of full-time.

[READ: America's Complicated Minimum Wage Argument]

Though these estimates include absenteeism for all sorts of illnesses and injuries, the spike is likely due to seasonal cold and flu strains, the Labor Department said in a blog post this week.

This year's spike could be the result of a particularly bad flu season combined with flu vaccinations that proved less effective than expected. But whatever the causes, he says, a spike in absenteeism can deliver a big hit to productivity in all types of workplaces, says Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

"Absenteeism is a problem. If you think about public schools and substitute teachers as opposed to regular teachers, the amount of learning goes down," he says. "I think it would be a particular problem in small companies, because they're less likely to have people they can shift and fill the role of the absent person."

In addition, he says, the flu can raise costs for companies forced to pay employees overtime to compensate for sick colleagues who have stayed home.

All of those costs add up. According to the CDC, the flu costs businesses around $10.4 billion dollars annually.

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