Counting Faculty and Staff Absences

U. of New Mexico introduces system aimed at spotting an H1N1 outbreak and helping administrators make decisions about illness-related closures. Some faculty skepticism ensues.
September 25, 2009

Efforts to track H1N1 on college campuses this fall have focused almost exclusively on students, but the University of New Mexico has introduced Absence Tracking, a daily survey to keep tabs on the numbers of faculty and staff who call in sick.

Thursday was the first day that an already-appointed “time keeper” -- the person who monitors absences for payroll purposes -- in each university department was required to submit by noon each weekday an estimated total of illness-related absences, whether the employee was sick with H1N1, the seasonal flu or another illness, or was out to take care of a sick family member.

Health officials at New Mexico say they hope to be able to sniff out an outbreak as early as possible, said Susan McKinsey, director of university communications. “We want to get a handle on whether an illness -- the flu or something else -- is beginning to spike right away, rather than waiting until a few days later when it’s too late for us to do much to stop the spread.”

The latest weekly tally by the American College Health Association found new cases of flu-like symptoms (most health organizations are no longer testing for H1N1, just presuming it's what most with the flu at this point in the year have) at 91 percent of the 267 colleges and universities that submitted data, up from 83 percent the week before. Nationwide, institutions averaged 24.7 student cases for every 10,000 students for the week ending September 18. In New Mexico, the rate was 2.7 per 10,000.

Because traditional-age college students are one of the demographic groups at higher risk of contracting H1N1 and because they often live in extremely close and infectious quarters, the focus among campus health professionals has been on protecting and treating them.

Large-scale cancellations and closures have yet to happen on the nation's campuses, but UNM officials want to be able to make their decisions based on quantitative data on absences and illnesses. The university created Absence Tracking because it was the easiest and fastest way to monitor H1N's effects on faculty and staff, said Byron Piatt, university emergency manager.

In addition to using employees already familiar with keeping track of co-workers’ sick days, UNM was able to adapt its preexisting web survey software. Time keepers have to submit just two numbers into the survey form each day: how many employees in their department are out sick and how many employees the department has as a whole.

“It’s simple,” Piatt said, “just x out of y were absent today.”

Elisha Allen, president of the university's Staff Council and associate director of new media and extended learning, said most staff are already accustomed to reporting their sick days and don’t see Absence Tracking as much of an imposition. “It's an unprecedented time with the possibility of a pandemic and the university is doing the best it can to deal with the threats.”

Faculty members expressed a bit more skepticism about the university’s decision to centralize the tracking of their sick days. Barbara S. McCrady, a professor of psychology and member of the Faculty Senate, voiced concerns that time keepers’ means of adding up absences due to illness might end up inflating the total number of sick faculty members on any one day.

“Faculty work in a variety of settings other than just their offices,” she said. “They may be in the field, with colleagues in another facility, at home to prepare course materials.… Keeping track of them this way is very contradictory to the way faculty work.”

Douglas Fields, president of the Faculty Senate and an associate professor of physics, expressed concern that the Absence Tracking system would, under the guise of protecting the campus from H1N1, actually be a step toward the imposition of more stringent faculty work requirements by the Board of Regents. Some members of that body, he said, “believe the faculty don’t work enough here” and are looking for ways to up faculty workloads.

“We’re all very suspicious this is just about trying to keep closer tabs on the hours faculty are in their offices,” he said.

Duane Arruti, associate vice president of human resources, denied that suggestion, saying the system is “definitely not” an attempt by the university to do anything other than protect its employees and students from H1N1 and to decide whether the institution needs to shut down briefly because of widespread illness.

“All we’re asking for are summary numbers from each department," he said. "We’re not asking for information for specific faculty members, we’re not asking what they’re sick with, we just want to have a broader picture of how the flu and other illnesses are hitting our workforce.”

Piatt said he understands privacy concerns “but in the larger picture if H1N1’s going to compromise our ability to operate, we need to look at the greater good and collect this information.”

So far, though, the threat has been pretty small. Among faculty, students and staff, said McKinsey, the spokeswoman, “there have only been a couple cases.”


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