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A Familys Flu Suffering and an Employer Dilemma

November 13, 2009
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, Featured Article, Compensation
Aubrey Opdyke suspects she contracted the H1N1 swine flu from her husband, Bryan Opdyke, a driver for UPS.

How Bryan came down with the flu is a mystery. But, when so many hands touch a parcel, he says, “It’s always possible for it to be transferred that way. It’s everywhere. I just happened to be the one who caught it.”

Bryan, 34, was lucky. For 11 days during the summer he was laid up, barely able to get out of bed. But that was as bad as it got. His wife, whose pregnancy put her at a higher risk of getting a severe case of swine flu, was not so fortunate. She became gravely ill. While she was in an induced coma, doctors delivered her 27-week-old baby via cesarean section. Parker Christine Opdyke was born on July 18 but died seven minutes after delivery. Aubrey survived, and returned home after nearly three months in the hospital. The hospital bill incurred by the Opdykes and Atlanta-based UPS is expected to top more than $1 million. The Opdykes still aren’t sure how much of that they’ll have to pay.

The family’s story, which has come to national attention, illustrates not only the personal suffering and financial hurt brought on by the illness, but also the cost of swine flu to employers—in health care dollars and lost productivity.

It also points out the bind that employers are in: Although the pandemic could put employees, their families and perhaps even the business itself at risk, employers can’t immunize their workforces on a large scale.

With the exception of health care workers—who are expected, though not required, to get vaccinated—most workers do not have access to it. The first people in line for the vaccine are those whose doctors determine that they are part of a high-risk group, such as pregnant women, young children, people with asthma or people who are living with a high-risk person.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says swine flu can spread like seasonal flu. It is mainly transferred from person to person through coughing or sneezing by an infected person, or by touching a surface or object that has flu viruses on it and then touching the mouth or nose. The fact that many organizations’ workers—such as flight crews, police officers and restaurant workers—interact daily with the germ-transferring public doesn’t help the employers’ argument. It’s the back of the vaccine line for them.

In the case of the Opdykes, avoiding the illness was even more difficult than it is today. The swine flu vaccine could have prevented Aubrey’s illness, but the 27-year-old fell ill over the summer, when the vaccine was not available to the public—not even for people at high risk.

Now that the vaccine is available, UPS is trying to get it, according to people familiar with the company’s requests. A company spokeswoman, Susan Rosenberg, would not comment on the company’s efforts to get a vaccine for employees, saying the company was focused, for now, on educating its employees about preventing swine flu through proper hygiene.

“We have relationships ongoing that if we choose to go down a different path we can explore availability” of the vaccine, she said.

In West Palm Beach, Florida, where the Opdykes work and live, the Palm Beach County Health Department is putting employers on a waiting list, in case there is enough vaccine to go around.

“We will work on bringing the vaccine to work sites,” department spokesman Tim O’Connor says. Until then, workers must go to their doctor or to designated clinics to be considered for the shot.

If vaccine were available, organizations that are not unionized could, in theory, require employees to be vaccinated.

“Employers don’t necessarily need a reason to mandate vaccines,” says Tal Marnin, an attorney with White & Case in New York. “In most states employees are at-will, and employers can impose any work conditions they want to.”

However, he advises against doing so—for both political and practical reasons. The state of New York provoked a backlash from workers and their unions when it attempted to impose a requirement that all health care workers be vaccinated. The state dropped the requirement.

UPS would not require vaccination. “There’s nothing we can require,” UPS spokeswoman Rosenberg says. “We encourage our employees to take that additional step to prevention with the vaccine, but it is not in any way a condition of work.”

On a practical level, with the vaccine in short supply, it is better to let doctors decide who should get it. That is exactly the stance employers like UPS are taking, in hopes that the right people will get the vaccine.

In the Opdykes’ case, the illness seemed innocuous at first. Aubrey felt achy and had a low-grade fever, she said during a phone interview in late October, a month after she returned home from the hospital. After a week of feeling tired, however, she became delirious. By the time she arrived at the emergency room of Wellington Regional Medical Center, she could not give the triage nurse her name.

Her oxygen levels were at life-threateningly low levels. Her lungs had filled with fluid; they would later collapse several times and her kidneys would nearly fail. Doctors induced a coma to better manage her condition and, as she lay near death, delivered her baby, who died.

As Aubrey began to recover, she developed a bacterial infection from being on a ventilator. After 85 days in the hospital, she came home at the end of September. Aubrey, who worked as a waitress before she fell ill, is weak and can barely pick up her 4-year-old daughter, Hope. She faces a long recovery.

“I go to pick up my daughter and I’m like, ‘I can’t do that,’ ” she says. Her voice is quiet and weak, and just talking about picking up her daughter appears to exhaust her.

Unable to prevent the illness, UPS has supported the Opdykes as they have tried to overcome it.

“From the very beginning they said they’d do anything to make sure we’re OK,” Bryan says of UPS and his managers. UPS itself would not comment on the specifics of the family’s experience.

Bryan took an unpaid FMLA leave of absence for six weeks to care for his wife. Since August 21, he has returned to working a few days a week as a loader in the early morning hours, in part to remain on the company’s health insurance plan. He stays with his wife during the day. UPS has offered grief counselors and nursing assistance to the family.

But the medical bills are coming due. While unsure of the exact amount, Bryan puts the total cost at more than $1 million, and it’s not yet clear how much the family will have to pay out of pocket. His union, Teamsters Local 769, has already taken up a collection to help with expenses. The couple is applying for Medicaid, the state health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

The Opdykes’ experience has been something of a wake-up call, at least to some of the other loaders and drivers with whom Bryan works.

“I’m not sure if others at work are concerned about swine flu,” he says. “But I know the ones I do see, they find it unbelievable that someone they know has gone through something like this. … They’re floored by how bad it got so quickly. I’m sure they’re concerned if they have pregnant wives. I know it’s raised awareness with them.”

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