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Issues in Labor Statistics | Summary 10-06 | July 2010

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Illness-related work absences during flu season

by Terence M. McMenamin
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Illness-related work absences during flu season In addition to the many physical difficulties associated with a bout of sickness, workers who come down with the flu or have a sick family member often must deal with interruptions in their regular work schedules. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly tracks the number of flu cases and the severity of flu seasons in the United States each year, data about work absences due to seasonal illness are less commonly discussed.

The Current Population Survey (CPS)—the monthly household survey that is best known for providing the Nation’s unemployment rate—contains questions about the reason for a work absence.[1] There are two reason categories listed as responses that are related to illnesses affecting either the workers themselves or the workers’ family members: "own illness, injury, or medical appointment" and "other family or personal obligations."[2] Not everyone who worked a reduced schedule for one of these reasons was absent from work because of a seasonal illness or sick family member. For example, those who reported that their absence resulted from other family or personal obligations could have missed work to do chores around the house or to go with a child on a school field trip. Nevertheless, observing changes in these measures over time may shed light on the effect of seasonal illnesses on the labor market.[3]

Chart 1 presents data for workers who normally work full time (35 or more hours per week) but worked less than 35 hours during the week preceding the survey because of the illness-related response categories mentioned previously. These data are not seasonally adjusted, so recurring seasonal patterns are quite evident. The number of workers with an absence due to their own illness, injury, or medical appointment shows a regular spike during the months of December through March. Although not all absent workers who supplied this reason were sick with a cold or the flu, it is likely that the increase in absences during the winter months is related to the seasonal illnesses that are typical during this time of year.[4]

Although absences due to workers’ own illnesses, injuries, or medical appointments regularly increase during the winter months, it is not as clear from chart 1 if that is also true of those with absences due to other family or personal obligations. Table 1 compares the average number of absences in April through November with the average number in the subsequent period from December through March. As with chart 1, the table shows that the average level of absence due to a worker’s own illness, injury, or medical appointment is consistently higher in the winter months than the average level during the previous 8 months. The average level of absence due to other family or personal obligations is also higher during the winter months.[5] In contrast, absences as a result of other noneconomic reasons—such as vacations or holidays—are somewhat lower during the winter months.

Chart 2 shows the percentage of full-time workers with an absence due to illness-related reasons, including both absences due to a worker’s own illness, injury, or medical appointment and other family or personal obligations. During the winter, this portion of employed persons regularly rises to a high that is close to double the low point from earlier that year. These data display the seasonal effect on full-time employment that is attributable, at least partially, to health-related reasons.

The level of absence due to a worker’s own illness, injury, or medical appointment was higher in the winter of 2007–08 than at any other period covered in this analysis, reaching a high of 3.3 million in February 2008. CDC data also show that the weekly percentage of patients with influenza-like illnesses peaked in mid-February during the 2007–08 season. Additionally, CDC data show that, according to several measures of influenza activity, the 2007–08 season was more severe than the previous three seasons.[6]

While it is difficult to quantify all of the different ways that health issues affect the labor market,[7] the CPS absence data can provide some measure of the effect that flu season has on workers. Further, an examination of changes in these data during flu season may be useful in evaluating the impact of a widespread illness on the Nation’s labor force.

This Issues paper was prepared by Terence M. McMenamin, an economist in the Division of Labor Force Statistics, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics. Email: CPSInfo@bls.gov. Telephone: (202) 691-6378.

Information in this summary will be made available to sensory-impaired individuals upon request. Voice phone: (202) 691-5200. Federal Relay Service: 1-800-877-8339. This report is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

Notes

[1] Absences are defined as instances when wage and salary workers who usually work 35 or more hours a week at their main job (usually full time) worked 1–34 hours during the reference week.

[2] Other noneconomic reasons for an absence include child care problems, school or training, vacation, holiday (legal or religious), bad weather, and other reasons. Note that the child care problems response category includes persons who specifically mention child care arrangements as a reason for taking time off from work. For example, "I had to take time off from work because I could not find someone to watch my children on Friday." Those who stay home to care for a sick child should be included in the "other family or personal obligations" category.

[3] Workers who usually work part time or who were not at work for the entire reference week are not included in this analysis. For multiple jobholders, absence data refer only to work missed at their main jobs. All self-employed persons are excluded, regardless of whether their businesses are incorporated.

[4] The CDC report "The Flu Season" shows that peak influenza months are most often December through March. On the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm?wwparam=1263565030 (viewed January 15, 2010).

[5] It is possible that the level of absence due to "child care problems" is also influenced by illnesses during the winter months. However, due to the small size of the sample and associated high levels of sampling variability, it is less clear whether such a conclusion could be supported with the available data.

[6] See "Influenza Activity—United States and Worldwide, 2007–08 Season," MMWR Weekly June 27, 2008 / 57(25); 692–97, on the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5725a5.htm (viewed May 3, 2010).

[7] For example, because the CPS questions refer to 1 week out of each month, work absences during the other weeks of the month are not measured.

Persons who usually work full time, but worked less than 35 hours during the survey reference week, by reason for absence, April 2005–March 2010
[Chart data]


Percent of usual full-time workers who worked 1–34 hours due to illness-related reasons, April 2005–March 2010
[Chart data]


Terence M. McMenamin
Economist, Division of Labor Force Statistics, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Telephone: (202) 691–6378; E-mail: cpsinfo@bls.gov.

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