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As Swine Flu Spreads, Expats Stay Put, For Now

By Nancy Hatch Woodward  5/6/2009
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The possibility of the current swine flu outbreak morphing into a pandemic is becoming a more viable option as each day passes. While businesses outside Mexico aren’t panicking and that country slowly reopens for business, most companies are dusting off their pandemic plans, giving advice to expats and—if they have one—starting to follow their playbooks.

While experts say they are not seeing the current situation triggering a recall of expats, they are advising that companies prepare for possible evacuations from affected areas in the future.

Countries across the globe are responding to the swine flu outbreak, which by early May 2009 had spread to 20 countries. China and Russia, for example, are setting up quarantines for anyone possibly infected. Japan recently recalled its expats from other Asian countries because of concerns about outbreaks of the avian flu.

But not everyone is taking drastic measures.

Adil Malia, president of corporate human resources for the Essar Group in Mumbai, India, says the company is sending out guidelines to its international offices about actions they should adopt, especially to managers traveling to affected areas. The diversified steel and telecommunications company is considering precautionary testing and preventive measures that might be necessary, as well as identifying possible sources for antiviral medicines and vaccines, should the company decide they are needed.

Tyco Electronics, in Shanghai, China, is gearing up its plans and has already started communicating with managers and employees on how to prepare for the swine flu, says Kevin Kang, vice president, HR.

“The good news is many companies put together plans in response to the avian flu,” said Dr. Myles Druckman, vice president of medical services with International SOS in Trevose, Pa., which provides medical assistance, international health care and security services. Unfortunately, some companies rely just on crisis management teams making decisions on the fly. But many others have more structured plans.

International SOS already has put out communications about the swine flu to its global employees, has posters about the illness in all of its offices, has travel restrictions (employees must get management approval to go to Mexico) and, in some of its offices, has processes where visitors are briefed to see if they have any flu symptoms.

Global Travel

Although the World Health Organization is not recommending travel restrictions, some companies are restricting or cautioning against travel to Mexico. Sharp, Sony and Panasonic have all asked employees not to travel to Mexico. In addition, many European and Asian countries are advising citizens against traveling to Mexico or the U.S. In Japan, health officials are boarding planes from Mexico using portable thermal sensors, while China continues its practice of temperature checks for all passengers entering the country.

ORC Worldwide, a global HR management company, has scheduled several teleconferences with hundreds of attendees to find out how companies are responding to the pandemic threat. Several companies reported asking employees who return from Mexico to stay home for anywhere from 72 hours to seven days, said Ann Brockhaus, senior occupational safety and health consultant in ORC Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., office. And some said they were using a symptom list to clear people before they come back to work.

Employers need to be careful about placing employees in quarantine or requiring them to see a doctor because of U.S. discrimination laws, said Brian Arbetter, a partner in the Chicago office of global law firm Baker & McKenzie LLP.

What employers can do is to speak directly to returning employees and expats and educate them about the risks, reassure them about the security of their employment, and try to get them to act voluntarily to make sure they are not ill before returning to the workplace.

According to participants of an ORC Worldwide teleconference, companies that have employees who need to travel to affected areas are sending them with antiviral medications, instructions on when and how to take the medicine, and a contact number for a medical advisor if they have questions. “Employees also need a current prescription so it is clear that this is their personal medication,” said Brockhaus.

Communication Is Vital

Natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, have made employers aware of the need to be able to communicate with employees if their offices are closed. Many have set up a designated 1-800 number that employees can call or have web pages employees know they can access in an emergency.

Currently, communicating with employees in affected areas has not become a problem, but with Mexico still hesitant to open businesses, that might change. Organizations need to consider technology that will enable them to push information to their employees or reroute inbound communications in the event they have relocated their employees. The technology needs to function even if there is loss of power or Internet, said Felipe Portocarrero, director of operations for VOLO Recovery, a disaster recovery business in Ormond Beach, Fla.

Nick Jones, vice president of research for IT consulting firm Gartner Inc., advises in his daily blog that businesses review broadband options, especially wireless, and spread it across several networks in case some become overloaded during a pandemic. He suggests using mobile devices in new ways, such as putting the company’s contingency plan in senior staff’s smart phones and using video phones for low-grade videoconferencing.

Some companies are using Twitter to keep employees informed and provide them with sources for additional information.

Planning Is Essential

While the media is getting caught up in trying to analyze whether this outbreak is getting worse or getting better, it’s almost irrelevant at this point, said Druckman. Employers need to have a plan so that if it does get worse, they know exactly how to react.

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Tennessee and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.

Quick Links:

CNN Video on World Battling Swine Flu

Related Articles:

A Global Pandemic Will Require Unique Approaches, SHRM Online Global HR Discipline, November 2006

Flu Pandemic Preparedness an HR Challenge in Hong Kong, SHRM Online Global HR Discipline, January 2007

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