Will Flu Season Cost US $15.4 Billion in Lost Productivity?

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A new study estimates that the flu will cost $15.4 billion in lost productivity within the United States this year. The estimate, recently covered in the press, is based partially on old data and partially on assumptions that cannot be confirmed. In other words, the number is a guess.

The new study of the effects of the flu on productivity is from employee outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The research conclusions received a huge amount of press coverage. But the steps the firm took to come to the conclusion are pieced together from data about several recent years, which may not translate into the current conditions.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas researchers wrote:

The aggressive strain of flu currently making its way across the country is producing similar activity as when nearly 40 million people were sickened in the 2014-2015 season, according to the CDC. Considering this new information, this flu season could cost at least $15.4 billion in lost productivity …

The firm offered an earlier estimate of $9.4 billion in lost productivity. It revised that number up because of data released more recently.

The two periods compared to reach the $15.4 billion figure:

New Estimate
18,100,827-24,641,000 estimated workers sickened
$26.63 – average hourly wage
$852.16 – average wages lost due to missing four eight-hour shifts
Estimated Losses: $15.4B-$20.9B

And:

2014-2015 Productivity Loss Estimate
18,100,827 estimated workers sickened
$25.26 – average hourly wage
$808.32 – average wages lost due to missing four eight-hour shifts
Estimated Losses: $14.6B

Among other things, the number of sick workers could go much higher. Additionally, workers in segments of the economy could differ from those presented. The number of hours people are out between the current estimate and 2014 to 2015 may be different. The number of days people are out could be radically different as well, based on how virulent the current strain is.

CNBC came up with a number for the flu’s impact on the economy of $10.4 billion. It was released earlier than the Challenger number, and the primary comparison was to the 2015 to 2016 season. However, the difference between the two estimates is considerable.

How much will the current flu season cost the United States in productivity? No one will know until the season is over and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posts its numbers. Even then, it will be a guess. There are too many variables to have a figure that is certain.