Organizations’ pandemic planning efforts will be put to the test with the expected widespread return of the H1N1 virus during fall 2009, and tremendous pressure will rest on HR departments as businesses potentially deal with scores of sick workers and high rates of absenteeism. Some U.S. government health experts say up to 40 percent of the workforce could be affected, placing HR squarely in the lead, tasked with ensuring business continuity, implementing health and safety policies and practices, keeping employees informed and managing pay, benefits and labor relations during the crisis.
Even though some experts say the outbreak could be mild, “a mild pandemic is still a really big deal,” said Regina Phelps, an internationally recognized thought leader in pandemic planning, and founder of Emergency Management & Safety Solutions, a consulting company specializing in emergency management and pandemic and continuity planning. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands of people getting sick” and impacting business severely, she said at an H1N1 readiness seminar held in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 2009.
“There’s one thing HR has to do before anything else, and that’s employee categorization,” Phelps said. Employees are categorized into two basic “buckets”: mission-critical and non-mission-critical functions.
“This categorization is essential for future identification of necessary resources, including acquisition of personal protective equipment and training,” Phelps said.
In each of those categories there are two sub-categories.
1. Mission-critical functions and staff:
- Category One—Those who perform a mission-critical activity and must be onsite to perform the work.
- Category Two—Those who perform a mission-critical activity and might work remotely.
2. Non-mission-critical functions and staff:
- Category Three—Those who perform an activity that is not mission-critical but could be performed via remote access. These staff could “backfill” the category one and two staff.
- Category Four—Those who perform an activity that is not mission-critical and cannot be performed via remote access.
To make the category one employees feel safe, companies need to implement health and safety policies and practices, to require personal workplace cleaning, to provide personal protective equipment such as facemasks and respirators, and to practice social distancing at the worksite.
For category two staff to work remotely, an effective work-from-home program will be necessary. Technology and equipment needed to support remote work and the amount of bandwidth the company needs to meet projected demands will have to be identified.
Alternative work and remote meeting options will have to be devised. IT staff will have to be trained sufficiently to support remote staff. “Organizations can exercise these strategies by requiring category two staff to work from home one day a month to work out the bugs,” Phelps said.
Those employees identified as categories three and four are “where the HR policies are really going to come into play,” Phelps said. There are vital issues of leave, pay and benefits. Bring in outside experts if necessary to develop policies, she advised.
“How long will you pay workers that aren’t working? You need to think about this now. Not later,” she warned. “Consult with your labor attorneys to be clear about what you can and cannot do,” she said.
Other components of an effective pandemic plan include:
- Social distancing—The concept of keeping employees and customers six feet apart. “If you can’t be six feet apart, limit face-to-face interaction,” Phelps said. Social distancing includes devising alternate work shifts and telecommuting options.
- Cleaning—“Most cleaning services don't clean what we are most concerned about in a pandemic,” such as doorknobs, handrails, elevator buttons, light switches, telephones, shared keyboards, headsets and desk surfaces. Phelps recommends issuing disinfectant wipes to all employees to wipe down their desks, surfaces and other areas where they work, and he urges raising everyone’s awareness of the need to clean.
- Personal protective equipment—“For those times you can’t use social distancing, tell people to wear masks,” Phelps says. “People are not going to be seated at their desks wearing masks, but where they can’t be safe, they should wear masks.”
- Education—Employers have an obligation to educate employees on the mechanics of protecting themselves, including cough hygiene, hand washing, using sanitizers and not touching their face, Phelps stressed.
“It is important to remember that the influenza virus is highly unpredictable. We must remain alert and be ready to invoke our plans at a moment’s notice. No one knows what the future will bring, but we must be prepared by completing and strengthening our pandemic plans,” Phelps said.
Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.