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Report: U.S. Pandemic Flu Strategy Needs Job, Wage Protections

By Dave Kittross  2/1/2008
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The U.S. government’s pandemic flu strategy should include job protection and income support for those who contract the disease, says a report on pandemic flu preparedness.

The American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a study, Pandemic Preparedness: The Need for a Public Health—Not a Law Enforcement/National Security—Approach, that says the federal government has pushed security-oriented policies that treat “the sick as potential enemies,” rather than as victims who need treatment and support.

The report recommends the government adopt a public health approach for dealing with a pandemic flu outbreak, rather than a law enforcement approach to controlling a flu pandemic. The federal government’s pandemic flu policies should use voluntary measures over legal coercion and mandatory quarantines. The study says that such an approach must confront perhaps the most important impediment to voluntary isolation, the economic impact on workers and businesses, and might require new laws that protect the jobs and incomes of those who contract a pandemic flu virus.

Most of the pandemic flu publicity goes to public health and national security concerns, says Wendy Parmet, director of the Northeastern University/Tufts University joint law and public health program. The economic situation of workers is “perhaps the biggest obstacle” to their entering into a voluntary isolation treatment program, Parmet tells SHRM Online.

Following the 2003 Toronto outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)—in which there were 224 cases and 38 deaths—a survey was conducted of Toronto SARS patients who did not participate in a voluntary quarantine program, Parmet says.

Economics was the top reason given by patients for not participating, she says. The SARS patients who did not participate in the voluntary isolation program said they did so because they could not afford to stay home and lose their jobs or wages, she says.

The report acknowledges the problem and includes recommendations that “to improve the effectiveness of voluntary social distancing methods, governments should enact laws to protect the jobs and income of people who stay at, or whose workplaces are closed, under the advice of medical or public health personnel.”

However, the report takes no position on the type of support that should be provided, Parmet says. There are a wide variety of options—tax breaks for employers and/or workers, direct payments to workers, more sick leave options, additional unemployment insurance, expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act—that should all be open for discussion, she said. Laws providing at least some protection for the jobs and/or availability of sick leave for those voluntarily staying away from the workplace should be part of any legislative package, she adds.

Dave Kittross is a freelance writer and editor based in Chevy Chase, Md., who has extensive experience writing about the federal government.

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