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Flu Forces Tough Choices: When Should Businesses Close?

By Aliah D. Wright  5/1/2009
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Experts are urging HR professionals to take steps now to mobilize their workers rather than wait for a full-blown flu pandemic.

That means preparing them to work from home, instituting social distancing policies and staggering shifts if necessary as H1N1, the notorious swine flu, spreads worldwide.

In late April 2009, the World Health Organization called the swine flu outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” raising the pandemic threat level to five on a six-step scale. Experts said the world is on the verge of a global pandemic as the virus continues to expand.

What’s worse, there is no vaccine.

Dr. Joseph S. Bresee, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) chief of flu prevention, said during a conference call organized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Private Sector Office that while Tamiflu and Relenza, antiviral medications, seem to be helping those infected in the United States, it will be months before a vaccine is available.

While technology exists to keep most employees who work in offices home, not everyone works in an office. And, because people often work in close proximity, a workplace can become a breeding ground for infection. Employers have an interest in making sure their employees don’t infect each other and making sure they are still able to run their businesses despite what could amount to massive absenteeism.

But how do you decide which employees can and should work from home?

Well, it depends.

Factors Vary

“There are a number of factors to take into consideration when considering whether you should close your business, either partially or completely, during a period of extreme health concern,” Kyle Maldiner, an expert in workplace pandemic preparedness with Employment Practices Solutions Inc., a nationwide human resource consulting firm, told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

Maldiner said that in addition to monitoring what federal and local health authorities are saying, employers should note whether schools are closing, if public transportation is shutting down and if essential services like the mail are operating. “Are you operating in or near an affected area?” he said.

“If massive outbreaks occur in your city or town, how much of your business can be run from remote locations?” Can this be done by mission-critical staff?

“Employers should use this opportunity, if they haven’t already, to explore creative ways to continue operations, including telecommuting,” Maldiner said. “Conference calls should be scheduled rather than in-person meetings in those areas where cases are being reported. Travel should be evaluated on a daily basis and curtailed as appropriate,” he added.

“This will be a time of great challenge in the middle of great economic upheaval,” he noted. “Only the well-prepared company will maintain some semblance of ‘normalcy’ during a full-fledged pandemic.”

John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., concurred.

“Any employee who can do his or her work from home with a computer and phone should be doing so prior to an outbreak,” he stated in a release. “This will help prevent a flu virus from spreading among co-workers.”

However, there are two key issues to consider about working from home.

First, “it depends on the company and the business,” noted Dr. Myles Druckman of International SOS. Druckman, a pandemic expert who advises global corporations on what to do to prepare for and act in these types of situations, said: “If you run a McDonalds, you can’t do that from home. Think of all those client-facing people that have jobs in clothing boutiques, malls, flipping hamburgers; they’re at restaurants—they all can’t work from home.

“The good news is, for those in the U.S.,” Druckman said, “since the avian flu and SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], there’s been a lot of planning around this. The critical infrastructure had pandemic plans as things evolved.”

He said that for years the best-prepared companies have done scenario drills, stockpiled masks and antiviral medications, and packaged everything—including material on what to do in case of an outbreak to give to employees.

The other issue about working from home is that everyone can’t work online from home—or at least not all at once.

“If everyone wants to do that, bandwidth is going to shrink fast and connectivity is going to be an issue,” Druckman said. Some key people are going to have to come in to the office. If that happens, you’ll have to stagger employee work schedules.

“You try to minimize their exposure to each other” so you reduce the risk of employees become infected.

Telework an ‘Absolute’ Option

But is it feasible to have people teleworking?

“Absolutely,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange.

“It’s about planning and making sure you have the infrastructure in place to support a remote environment,” she said. The biggest obstacle to telework remains a cultural one.

“You’re changing the way people think about working, ensuring that management understands that your employee is working when they are working remotely.”

She said companies should test their bandwidth to make sure lots of people can access the company’s networks simultaneously without a lot of issues. She suggests companies “test and stress” their networks—long before it’s necessary.

Shutting the Doors

Before deciding to close offices, one of the first things employers can do, according to and officials with the CDC, is to be aware of and review federal, state and local health department pandemic influenza plans and incorporate appropriate steps from those plans into their workplace disaster plans.

Not having a plan could put businesses in peril, experts say.

“Employers will be on the front line of any outbreak, since business travel and workplaces are major factors in the spread of any virus,” Challenger stated.

Unfortunately, corporate America has a bad track record when it comes to responding to public health threats. According to a survey by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, 66 percent of mid-size to large businesses made no disaster preparation plans in 2006, amid growing concerns of a potential avian flu pandemic. Only 14 percent of companies had “adequate plans.”

“An outbreak would lead to widespread absenteeism as employees fall ill or stay home to care for a child, spouse or other relative,” Challenger stated. There’s the fear of transmission and the economic impact of the closing of workplaces with decreases in trade, tourism and an overburdened health care system.

“If we go to a full pandemic, the implications could be pretty devastating,” Druckman noted. “It is going to affect business. There’s going to be business closures, disruptions to commerce in general.”


Protect Your Employees



§  I Increase the number of shifts to reduce the number of people working simultaneously.

§   Expand personal space. Urge workers to suspend close contact by staying at least three feet from each other at all times.

§   Limit face-to-face meetings. Try conference calls and videoconferencing.

§   Expand telecommuting. Determine who can work remotely. This will keep people off public transportation and out of the office.

§   Have a supply of surgical masks.

§   Designate some staff as teleworkers so that in the event of a disaster they are prepared to take over all duties assigned to a department.

§   Send home workers who are obviously too ill to remain in the workplace.

§   Permit workers to avoid crowded stores by allowing them to shop online during the lunch hour or before or after business hours.

§   Encourage cleanliness. Make sure desks and phones are wiped daily with disinfectant. Flu viruses can survive up to 48 hours on hard surfaces.

§   Check heating and air-conditioning systems. These can aid in the transmission of viruses. If possible, turn them off. If not, make sure air filters are cleaned often.


Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.


Aliah D. Wright is a manager/editor for SHRM Online.


Quick Links:

Social Distancing Guidelines, SHRM Online Templates and Tools

Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Main H1N1 Flu Outbreak Page

Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic, OSHA guidance

Workplace Questions, FAQs from PandemicFlu.Gov


Related Articles:

Absence Control Is a Challenge, Studies Find, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, April 2009

Swine Flu Requires Swift Response from HR, SHRM Online Legal Issues, April 2009

As Swine Flu Spreads, What Should HR Professionals Do, HR News, April 2009

Encouraging Absenteeism, HR Magazine, October 2009

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