Workforce Swine Flu Pandemic Survival Preparedness Tips For Business

Cynthia Stamer
April 30, 2009 — 2,796 views  
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With U.S. officials confirming the first swine flu attributed death in the U.S. today and warning Americans to take precautions to guard against a likely swine flu pandemic, U.S. employers are asking what steps they should take to defend their organization and its people against the risk of a widespread outbreak among members of their workforce and the attendant lost time, health and disability costs, OSHA and other liability exposures and other personal and financial consequences likely to result from an outbreak.

Whether or not the swine flu outbreak reaches the level of an official pandemic, official reports reflect a legitimate need for concern.  According to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, victims of the virus already have been reported in 10 states, and the number of people known to be infected with the 2009 H1N1 influenza strain grew to 91 in the U.S. as of Wednesday. That number includes the first U.S. swine flu fatality: a 22-month-old child from Mexico who died of the illness Monday at a Houston, Texas hospital while visiting the United States. While swine flu victims have been reported in more than 11 countries, the majority of the incidents of the disease and deaths as of Wednesday morning had occurred in Mexico.

While the CDC says getting employees and their families to get a flu shot remains the best defense against a flu outbreak, it also says getting employees and family members to consistently practice good health habits like covering a cough and washing hands also is another important key to prevent the spread of germs and prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu.  Employers should encourage employees and their families to take the following steps: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • Stay home when you are sick to help prevent others from catching your illness.  Cover your mouth and nose.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  • Clean your hands to protect yourself from germs.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Practice other good health habits.  Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Employers also should be sensitive to workplace policies or practices that may pressure employees with a contagious disease to report to work despite an illness and consider whether the employer should adjust these policies temporarily or permanently in light of the impending health risk.  For instance, financial pressures and the design and enforcement of policies regarding working from home and/or qualifying for paid or unpaid time off significantly impact the decisions employees make about whether to come to work when first experiencing symptoms of illness.  Employers of workers who travel extensively - may wish to delay or restrict travel for some period. 

Many employers may want to evaluate and appropriately revise existing policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak.  If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, employers need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, and to protect the employer's ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker's compensation, safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements.  They also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years. 

To help promote health habits within their workforce, many businesses may want to download and circulate to employees and families the free resources published by the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm.  Businesses and other concerned parties also can track governmental reports about the swine flu and other pandemic concerns at http://www.pandemicflu.gov/index.html

Businesses also should begin preparing backup staffing and production strategies to prepare for disruptions likely to result if a significant outbreak occurs.  Employers also should be sensitive to workplace policies or practices that may pressure employees with a contagious disease to report to work despite an illness and consider whether the employer should adjust these policies temporarily or permanently in light of the impending health risk.  For instance, financial pressures and the design and enforcement of policies regarding working from home and/or qualifying for paid or unpaid time off significantly impact the decisions employees make about whether to come to work when first experiencing symptoms of illness.  Many employers may want to evaluate and appropriately revise existing policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak. 

If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, employers need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, and to protect the employer's ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker's compensation, safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements.  They also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years. 

Employers should begin preparing backup staffing and production strategies to prepare for disruptions likely to result if a significant outbreak occurs.  Whether or not the disease afflicts any of its workers, businesses can anticipate the swine flu outbreak will impact their operations -either as a result of occurrences affecting their own or other businesses or from workflow disruptions resulting from safeguards that the business or other businesses implement to minimize swine flu risks for its workforce or its customers.

Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the publication "Planning for the Pandemic" authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer available here. Schools, health care organizations, restaurants and other businesses whose operations involve significant interaction with the public also may need to take special precautions.  These and other businesses may want to consult the special resources posted at  http://www.pandemicflu.gov/health/index.html.

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Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters.  Ms. Stamer in particular has worked extensively with health care providers, government officials, and businesses to plan for and deal with pandemic and other disease management and disaster preparedness concerns.  If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at [email protected], (214) 270-2402, Luckett, [email protected], (214) 270-1407 or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the www.cttlegal.com. If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, click here.

Cynthia Stamer

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Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is nationally and internationally recognized for her work assisting businesses, governments, and other entities to develop creative strategies for dealing with employee benefit and related human resources, insurance, health care and finance concerns. Ms. Stamer helps businesses design, administer and defend cost-effective employee benefit other human resources programs, policies and procedures to meet their budgetary and other business objectives.