Flu season is taking its toll on small businesses this year as staggering numbers of employees are calling in sick. In the midst of what many experts consider to be the worst influenza outbreak in a decade, U.S. employers are scrambling to combat the consequences of serious productivity losses. According to a study by consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the total cost to employers could be $15.4 billion in lost productivity. The CDC speculates, however, that the number of flu cases could reach 2009 levels, when the swine flu pandemic affected almost 24 million workers. If this is the case, productivity losses will rocket to $21 billion. Already, a significant number of small companies have reported huge losses. The Denver-based educational software company, Elephant Learning, is one example. They had to delay the release of an updated version of their flagship math learning product from early January to March because all three of their software developers contracted the flu in December. This caused 20% of their customers, who pay a $35 monthly fee, to cancel the online service. Company founder Aditya Nagrath says “It’s been extremely frustrating. You just feel like there’s nothing you can do to get control back.” Elephant Learning isn’t the only company who’s losing control this flu season. Fiftyflowers.com lost 8 of their 23 workers to the flu in January. Of those workers, 4 were customer service representatives. “Having 35% of your workforce out is a challenge,” says CEO Lisa Atwood. In the absence of her customer service team, Atwood and her technical and marketing staffers picked up as many calls as they could, leaving many unanswered, and ultimately leading to lost sales. To combat the negative effects of influenza in the workplace, the CDC released a list of suggestions. They recommend that employees stay home when sick “for at least 24 hours after (their) fever is gone.” They also recommend that employers “clean frequently touched surfaces” like doorknobs, copier buttons, point-of-sale devices, elevator buttons, stair railings, vending machine buttons, and computer keyboards. It’s never too late to for small business owners to practice cleaner workplace habits. They may not have avoided the flu this year, but they will in years to come.