As WHO Declares Pandemic, Study Shows Many Unprepared for HR Issues

By Aliah D. Wright Jun 12, 2009
A new study reveals that two in five employers—41 percent—do not have business continuity plans in place in case a pandemic strikes.

The revelation by Mercer, a global consulting firm, came just as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the swine flu is now a full blown pandemic—the first global flu pandemic in more than four decades.

The move came Thursday, June 11, 2009, as infections soared across the United States, South America, Europe, Australia, China and elsewhere throughout the world.

As of early June 2009, nearly 30,000 confirmed cases of the swine flu had been reported in 74 countries, WHO stated.

“This is only part of the picture,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, said during a June 11, 2009, news conference. “With few exceptions, countries with large numbers of cases are those with good surveillance and testing procedures in place. Spread in several countries can no longer be traced to clearly defined chains of human-to-human transmission. Further spread is considered inevitable,” she said.

Chan said she decided to raise the alert level after consulting with leading influenza experts, virologists and public health officials and an emergency committee created to address the swine flu.

“The scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met. A global outbreak of swine flu is under way,” she said.

“Organizations need to be taking a look at their policies—especially around how to manage their workforce if a large number of people are going to be gone for an extended period,” Danielle Dorling, a consultant in Mercer’s HR effectiveness consulting business, told SHRM Online.

She said “business continuity plans should be standardized and employers must be able to communicate in a streamlined, swift and decisive fashion. Ad-hoc reaction can lead to confusion, unnecessary panic and expensive global inconsistencies that can expose the organization to significant financial risk.”

"Having even a rudimentary plan in place may very easily mean the difference between the success and failure of a business during and after a situation that interrupts normal business operations," added Felipe Portocarrero, director of operations for VOLO Recovery, an Ormond Beach, Fla., disaster recovery firm.

Conducted from April 30, 2009, to May 11, 2009, Mercer’s survey included more than 400 mid-size and large organizations worldwide with responses from employers located in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Hong Kong, Brazil, Vietnam, Switzerland, China, Argentina, South Korea, Singapore, the Russian Federation, the Philippines and Belgium.

Mercer’s study presents a snapshot of how businesses are responding to the spread of the virus and what plans are in place. Fifty-three percent of employers surveyed were considering whether to create back-up and contingency plans in response to the outbreak. About 43 percent said they planned to curtail or abandon business travel; 41 percent were planning to allow employees to work from home.

Other steps:

  • 27 percent plan to include voluntary quarantine for employees exposed to risk.
  • 24 percent plan enforced quarantines for employees at risk.
  • 21 percent plan to cancel meetings and conferences.
  • 20 percent plan to screen staff and visitors returning from travel.
  • 12 percent plan to require some employees to receive medical checkups.
  • 10 percent plan to review health or insurance plans.
  • About 24 percent are taking no special actions.

Experts say failing to plan can be more than detrimental—especially since a pandemic might not be the only emergencies companies can face. Remember Sept. 11? Hurricane Katrina?

“If you plan ahead, these policies can apply in a multitude of emergencies,” Dorling pointed out.

Jackie Ford, a labor and employment attorney at Vorys Sater in Columbus, Ohio, where she is a partner, added that planning is essential because “some employers may not be fully familiar with state and federal laws that can come into play” when dealing with absenteeism. She said many employers will need to brush up on laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—even the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

Another thing to remember, the Mercer study points out, is that employees who are on international assignment might require more support because of language barriers and limited knowledge of local health systems. Expatriates might want to return home, which can prove costly and can damage long-term assignment expenditures and productivity.

“There are all kinds of potential land mines, and whether it’s this [emergency] or the next one, employers need to make sure they’ve really thought through and consulted with their counsel or HR to make sure they are ready,” Ford said. “And to make sure their policies are up-to-date so their employers know” the rules, she added.

Perhaps some good can come out of the raising of the alert level, Dorling said.

“I’m hoping that …this puts [swine flu] back on people’s minds so that hopefully companies that might not have started to look at existing policies will take this opportunity to review, revise and refine” their plans.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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