Ready or Not, Here It Comes

By Beth Mirza Aug 3, 2009

Eileen Shue, SPHR, is ready for the flu season.

Shue is vice president of corporate resources for The Sterling Group, a property management company that builds and develops apartment communities and self-storage facilities. With a headquarters office, more than 60 locations in five states and expansions planned, “I’m looking at corporate employees and people in the field and our residents,” Shue said. “And we have almost 5,000 [apartment] units—that’s a lot of families.”

The upcoming flu season could put Shue’s pandemic response plan for The Sterling Group to the test. The novel H1N1 (swine) flu strain is expected to spread quickly among children going back to school and among young adults. People caring for sick family members are being advised to stay home. As much as 40 percent of the workforce in the United States could be away from the job during the height of the flu season.

“I’ve been focused on how to keep employees healthy and our operations going, and then, even if we’ve done everything we can, someone brings the virus in,” Shue said.

Shue’s pandemic response plan depends on prevention, she said: emphasizing hand-washing, not coming to work when sick, and providing antiseptic hand gel and wipes to clean office equipment. Her employer offers flu vaccines at the corporate office and encourages employees in the field to get the vaccine. Once the H1N1 vaccine is available, they’ll offer that as well, she said.

“We are preparing for an H1N1 vaccination campaign,” the CDC web site stated July 30, 2009. “We are making every effort to have a safe and effective H1N1 vaccine available for distribution as soon as mid-October, but it is possible, even probable, that epidemics may begin in different parts of the country before then. This makes prevention even more critical.”

[For a comprehensive list of resources on flu in the workplace, visit SHRM Online’s Swine Flu News & Resources page.]

Employers can encourage their workers to get the vaccine by offering incentives, said Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, a wellness company that uses technology to challenge employees to make better health choices. Incentives should be based on the company’s culture and what it can afford, Albrecht said.

“An afternoon off, points toward a raffle, an Amazon gift card … If it’s a serious enough issue where people’s lives are at risk, the company should take a look at strong incentives, such as cash on the spot or health insurance premium reimbursement,” he said.

“The HR team is constantly busy and can live in a fire-drill world,” Albrecht added. “This would be the biggest, loudest fire drill in a while.”

Shue also is the head of the Michiana SHRM chapter’s business continuity committee and has developed ties to the local Red Cross and health department. Using those contacts, she’s put together caregiver guidelines and recommendations for employees who may need to take care of ill family members. To encourage employees to stay home and prevent the spread of the disease, the company has added five days to each employee’s paid-time-off bank, Shue said.

“Children are expected to be ill for eight days, and adults for 14. People will be home because daycare centers and schools will be closed,” Shue said.

A disaster recovery plan is in place for continuing corporate office operations, payroll and vendor services. Shue has an inventory of who at the corporate office has a laptop and can work from home, as well as a secure network remote employees can use. Once she gets the word from the local public health department that the flu has hit South Bend, Ind.—or any of the other locations where The Sterling Group has operations—Shue will put the plan to work, e-mailing employees and utilizing WebEx so that employees can ask questions.

Voice of Experience

As ready as Shue is, Donald Norris is even more prepared—because he’s done this already.

“In Florida, we deal with emergencies every year,” the manager of talent acquisition for the city of Jacksonville said. “They’re called hurricanes.”

Each city department has a continuity of operations plan, Norris said. The plans highlight key essential services and how each public agency should be able to respond to citizens’ needs.

“The influenza pandemic is another incident that could cause us to go into this mode,” Norris said.

Health officials will determine if the city needs to close schools or businesses to prevent the spread of the disease. HR’s duties, Norris said, include educating the 9,000 city employees on the flu; providing vaccinations when they become available and tissues and hand sanitizer for the employees and citizens coming into the city offices; and updating vendor contracts to make sure they don’t run short.

“From my perspective, the key is making sure you’ve got suppliers lined up. Have a ready stockpile of soap, water and antiseptic hand sanitizers (and) tissues; masks at some point will come into play. Make sure the custodial staff has plenty of disinfectant,” Norris said.

The city’s agreement with the unions provides for paid time off in the event of an emergency when employees are barred from reporting to work, Norris added. 

“I’m suggesting this is no different from any other emergency, so that’s what we’ll go with. … Everything I’ve read indicates that employers must be more liberal with their leave policies.”

For employee communications, the city relies on e-mail, flyers and “the white board,” Norris said—an emergency preparedness web site where employees can get the latest information. “We’ve had a lot of practice using that,” Norris said. 

“You need the ability to communicate quickly—tell employees what the symptoms are, what the policy is, and if they are sick, to stay home.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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