MINNEAPOLIS—Uncertainty about the trajectory of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus looms, but employers that side-step contingency plans are most likely to be hit the hardest, according to health and business leaders meeting here to discuss strategies for keeping people, and companies, safe in the face of a worldwide health crisis.
“It’s better to be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than unprepared for something that does,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), sponsor of the two-day conference, on Sept. 22, 2009.
Health experts agree that, so far, symptoms stemming from the virus are usually mild and last for fewer than five days. The bigger challenge for employers will be absenteeism: keeping their businesses going when a huge portion of their workforce is either sick or caring for sick family members.
Estimates of the number of workers who could be affected by the virus vary wildly. But some U.S. government health experts say up to 40 percent of the workforce could be affected. To alleviate strain on the public health system in areas particularly hard hit, employers who normally insist that absent workers present a doctor’s certificate should consider suspending the requirement, according to Lisa Koonin, a senior advisor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Limiting workplace risk should become a priority and human resource professionals can help by getting word out to managers that it’s permissible, and legal, to “ask” workers who appear to have symptoms to go home and not return until they have recovered. “If an employee is obviously symptomatic, I would send that employee home,” said employment attorney Nina Stillman of Morgan Lewis. “What is the worst case scenario? That you will have to pay the employee for the day.”
Unfortunately, Stillman added, “there is no bright line test about when do you pay the employee. “ Earlier this year, she noted, most employers were incenting sick employees to stay home by promising to pay them.
Still, employers should have policies in place that address the pay-related issues associated with sending workers home. “We’re asking employers to look at their current systems, even if today they don’t allow paid sick leave,” Koonin added. Some employers are wisely planning for the worst case scenario by establishing leave banks or amending existing policy to allow workers to go into a negative leave balance, she said.
Because illness stemming from the H1N1 virus is short-lived, it’s unlikely that employees will be eligible for caregiver leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to Barbara Bingham of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy. Nor will employers who opt to pay workers to stay home if they are sick be eligible for subsidies or reimbursement from the government, she stressed.
Fact vs. Fiction
Communication should be a key component of all employers’ pandemic management plans, workplace experts say. Employers can help relieve worker fears by providing assurances that they are tracking illness trends and have a plan for keeping the business going in the event of a local outbreak. Web sites and call centers can be helpful for getting the word out to a widely disbursed workforce, according to Jeanne Dentz, director of Global Employee Benefits at General Mills.
Some employers may find it useful to bring in a local expert to help educate workers and their families about real vs. perceived risks and to prevent workers from becoming irrationally fearful, Stillman said.
Rita Zeidner is senior writer for HR Magazine.
SHRM H1N1 resources page
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Employer Web Site)