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Recovery may have been slowed by H1N1 Add to ...

The H1N1 flu forced almost one in 10 Canadians to take time off work in November, Statistics Canada says, possibly putting a modest damper on the country's already weak recovery.

The agency said yesterday that 9 per cent of workers between the ages of 15 and 69 called in sick at some point in November because of the seasonal or H1N1 flu, which caused a frenzy of lineups for vaccinations last fall.

Measured by work hours lost - about 30 million - Statscan said the impact of the flu in November was greater than the blow from the massive blackout that hit Ontario and part of Quebec in the summer of 2003.

The power outage, which left major cities in darkness and stopped Toronto streetcars in their tracks, caused Canada's gross domestic product to shrink by 0.9 per cent in one month.

Phillip Cross, Statscan's chief economic analyst, said the country's flu sick days clearly had an effect on economic growth. But how much is hard to say.

Some economists are now revising their predictions for November's GDP growth based on yesterday's flu numbers. Canadian GDP rose a tepid 0.2 per cent in October, the last month for which statistics are available.

"When you start comparing this to the electrical blackout, that's going to get people's attention," Mr. Cross said.

He said it was unlikely the economy would suffer as it did in the blackout.

"It's certainly going to have a dampening impact," Mr. Cross said. "There's no question of that. The question is how much?"

Derek Burleton, an economist with TD Securities in Toronto, said he didn't believe the flu absenteeism would have a "significant impact."

He pointed out that Statscan does not have flu numbers from previous Novembers to compare the impact.

Many large employers had prepared themselves for a much more serious flu pandemic, with health agencies predicting that a third or more of their work forces could be absent.

Vancouver-based Telus Corp., which started planning for a pandemic in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak, says it had no abnormal spike in the usual absenteeism in November.

Spokesman Shawn Hall said the company's moves to provide employees with the latest updates from health authorities on the flu helped. "Constant communication ... took out the hysteria and the misinformation that was out there."

The company did not have to enact plans that would have seen 18,000 of its 35,000 employees work from home to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Statscan's report yesterday also said women and workers with children were more likely to miss work because of the flu. The lost work hours were partly offset by an extra 8.6 million in overtime hours. Health workers, not surprisingly, were the most likely to report working extra time.

Follow on Twitter: @jeffreybgray

 

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