Managing Swine Flu Workplace Disruptions

Cynthia Stamer
May 4, 2009 — 1,478 views  
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As the U.S. rushes to try to contain the spread of the swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection (swine flu), businesses increasingly are facing employee leave requests and other employment and operational disruptions plans caused by school, day care or other closures and other business disruptions resulting from efforts to contain the disease while also working to take appropriate steps to prevent the spread of the disease within their own organizations.

Regardless of how deadly it ultimately proves to be, the pandemic proportion of the swine flu outbreak now ensures that most U.S. businesses will experience some disruption in operations as a result of the epidemic and efforts to contain it. 

According to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, 36 states had reported a total of 236 confirmed cases of swine flu and more cases are expected. That number includes the first U.S. swine flu fatality: a 22-month-old child from Mexico who died of the illness at a Houston, Texas hospital while visiting the United States last week. States currently hardest hit include New York (73 cases), Texas (41 cases), California (30 cases), Delaware (20 cases) and Arizona (17 cases).  In the near future, however, CDC officials anticipate confirmed cases in all 50 states.

CDC officials and other experts continue to emphasize that the success of efforts to prevent the unnecessary spread of the disease depends largely on good health habits, limiting exposure to the virus and prompt diagnosis and treatment of afflicted persons.  Employers can help reduce the risk that members of their workforce and their families will catch the virus by promoting good health habits and encouraging workers and their families to stay home and seek prompt treatment in the event of an illness.  Simultaneously planning for and dealing with absences and other staffing challenges result from school, day care and other closings prevents a greater challenge for many employers, however.

Easy Preventive Safeguards

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.  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 www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm. These and other resources make clear that Employers should encourage employees and their families to practice good health habits by telling 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.

Many businesses are promoting these and other conducts that help prevent the spread of disease by sharing educational materials such as the growing range of free materials provided by the CDC and others available at the government sponsored website, http://www.pandemicflu.gov.  For instance, business can access and download free copies of the following publications at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm:

  • Cover Your Cough
  • Be a Germ Stopper: Healthy Habits Keep You Well
  • Flu Prevention Toolkit: Real People. Real Solutions
  • Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School

Dealing With Lost Time & Productivity Challenges

Businesses also 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.

 

For many employers, however, planning for and dealing with requests for time off or other workplace disruptions resulting from pandemic containment efforts presents special challenges.  While most employers have well established policies and procedures for providing medical leave to employees during periods of their own or a family member's illness under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or otherwise, many employers are experiencing difficulty in responding to leave requests of healthy employees necessitated by school or day care closings, suspected exposures, or other pandemic response disruptions.  

Certainly, whether or not legally mandated, the CDC and other official advisories make clear that sick employees should not be in the workplace.  Employers of course must provide medical leave as required by the FMLA or other similar state laws as well as any contractually agreed to leave.  To better insulate their workforce against potential exposure to the virus, however, many employers also may wish consider temporarily modifying existing leave or other work policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak.  In this respect, employers need to consider both how to respond to the present wave of the virus and to plan for the possible need to respond to another potentially stronger outbreak of the swine flu virus that the CDC and other experts caution likely may arise in the Fall or Winter.

As part of their efforts to insulate their workplaces against exposure to the virus, employers generally should discourage workers from coming to work if they or a family member are experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to the virus.  For this reason, businesses generally evaluate workplace policies or practices that may pressure or encourage employees with swine flu or any other contagious disease to report to work. Employers should consider whether the potential risks make advisable adjustments to their current attendance, telecommuting, leave and paid time off and other policies.

In light of the current situation, many businesses may want to consider temporarily adjust their leave, telecommuting and other policies in light of the impending health risk.  For instance, recognizing that the decision to close a school or child care facility in response to a known or suspected infection seeks to minimize the spread of the disease through exposure to other then undiagnosed cases, businesses generally should think twice about allowing employees to bring these potentially exposed children into the workplace.  Instead, employers may wish to consider being more flexible in allowing employees to work from home or take leave to care for children whose schools or child care facilities are closed due to concerns about possible exposure to reduce the risk of creating unnecessary exposure in their workplace.   

To help minimize financial pressures on workers to report to work when they may be ill or exposed to the virus, many employers also may want to consider providing or offering short-term disability insurance, expanding the availability of paid or unpaid leave or both.

Regardless of the specific choices a particular business makes, businesses need to take appropriate steps to document, implement, and communicate their decisions.  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. 

If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, for instance, 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.   

 

In light of the growing responsibilities and exposures of business to medical privacy and disability liabilities associated with knowledge, collection, protection and use of information about the health and medical conditions of workers and their families,  businesses also should review and update their procedures regarding the use, collection, disclosure, and protection of this and other sensitive information.  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 at http://www.cynthiastamer.com/documents/speeches/20070530%20Pan%20Flu%20Workplace%20Privacy%20Issues%20Final%20Merged.pdf.  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

 

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 absence, 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,  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.

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.