by Patti Dunham, MA, MBA, SPHR
On June 11, 2009, Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization announced the first global flu pandemic since 1968. In her statement Dr. Chan stated that the H1N1 swine flu virus is “moderate in severity” and that “…a global outbreak of swine flu has begun.” Defined, a pandemic is a sudden outbreak that becomes very widespread – a global disease. An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which there is little or no immunity in the human population, which causes it to spread easily worldwide. Although currently the disease has only infected 30,000 people to date (2% of which are labeled as “severe”), it is expected to continue to spread for up to six to nine months, typically in waves. This requires us, as employers and individuals, to heighten our awareness of such disease and engage in preparedness TODAY!
If your own personal well being or the well being of those around you isn’t enough to get you motivated to take action, keep in mind that a worldwide influenza pandemic could have a major effect on the global economy – and we all know we don’t need any additional negative impacts on our economy! Knowing this, it is especially important for businesses today to prepare for this pandemic, possible future pandemics, and just “emergencies” in general. Whether it is a tornado, a flood, or even the sudden death of key personnel, emergency preparedness and business continuity plans will help guide personnel operationally during such a crisis and help organizations prepare properly for various emergencies. Will we just close the doors until the crisis is over? Will we try to open as soon as possible to provide the needed product or service? Will we sit and wait for a predetermined time and then begin operations? Determining these types of organizational objectives will provide the essential background to determine the direction of the plan and proper preparedness before a crisis to ensure the viability into the future.
Admittedly, creating a preparedness plan is not an easy activity but it is will become our guiding document during such an event. Whether it is an eight hour power outage or a full pandemic influenza event that halts activities for weeks or maybe even months, this plan will help us prepare for those emergencies. With a plan in place, the document will also need to be supported by a solid backbone of policies and procedures for such emergencies. A complete review of potential policies and procedures impacted during an emergency is almost as essential as the plan itself. These policies and procedures should complement the goals of the organization to move to the resumption of activities as quickly and smoothly as possible. A list of some of the policy considerations you should consider follows.
- Do you have an emergency preparedness / business resumption plan? This type of plan is the first step in determining your actions in the case of a pandemic or other emergency type event.
- Does your sick time/paid time off or sick leave policy cover potential employee needs for cases of quarantine? Experts indicate that in the case of a pandemic outbreak individuals will be encouraged to maintain social distancing or self isolation. This would include encouraging employees to remain at home if they are sick or are caring for a sick dependent. Does your policy cover such an event that may last up to six weeks and encourage people to stay home if they have flu like symptoms? Have you considered the impact of pay and/or benefits if employees are off for that length of time?
- Does your emergency closure policy (for inclement weather, power outages, etc.) take pandemics into consideration? Experts propose that a pandemic could result in social distancing or self isolation for up to 45 days. Does your policy take into consideration that the company may be closed for multiple days, possibly even weeks? If you indicated people are paid partial pay, for example, during a closure do you provide a maximum of the number of days that would last? Do you address how their benefits will be affected? Have you considered federal and state laws that may impact these decisions?
- Do you address how pay is handled during a pandemic? Consideration here must be made for how pay is handled when operations are forced to close and/or individuals are asked to work from their homes. Again, don’t forget to consider federal and state laws when considering pay issues.
- Will you allow employees a flexible leave?
- Will you charge employees with accrued vacation or personal/sick time?
- Will you allow employees to take the time unpaid?
- Will you provide employees with administrative paid leave?
- Will you require employees to return within a certain amount of time once the pandemic has been “cleared”?
- Have you considered what will happen if they do not return when you require them to return?
- Do you have a communicable disease policy? This policy will allow for communication to prevent disease spread at the work site or how to handle cases where employees have been exposed at the work site. If possible, the policy should encourage employees with communicable diseases and/or symptoms to not come to work.
- Do you have policies and practices that encourage social distancing? During a potential pandemic, one of the best ways to limit transmission is to limit contact with one another. Consider policies and procedures that distance employees from each other, customer and the general public. Encourage telecommuting (if appropriate), work through email, websites, and/or teleconferences.
- Do you have a telecommuting policy or flexible worksite plan in place? Is it possible for your employees to work from home? Your organization may need to upgrade your technological capabilities but it will be invaluable if they are able to perform essential functions away from the workplace.
- Do you have a flex-time schedule that would allow your employees the ability to stagger work times? This type of a plan would assist in minimizing exposure and reducing potential transmission of the disease.
- Do you have an Employee Assistance Plan or some other arrangement to assist employees during a pandemic? An EAP will assist employees in managing the additional stress related to a pandemic. These will include stress related to illness, death, financial, and issues for some regarding the loss of a routine. Communication and social support will be important to reduce fear and worry.
- Do you have an extensive communication plan in the case of such an event? The plan should encourage communication with the employees:
- about the current situation;
- when they show signs of illness and respectfully send them home;
- about other employees’ illness while maintaining HIPAA compliance;
- when they are too scared to report to work.
Yes, planning for an emergency that can impact your organization and more specifically a pandemic is serious business. As with everything human resource professionals are involved in, preparedness is important. Like policy development, succession planning, recruitment, or professional development, preparedness is just one more thing HR professionals should be involved in to ensure proper preparedness for our companies. A lot of work? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely! As we absorb the reality of what is happening today, we can rest assured that the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and other local public health professionals are doing everything they can to ensure we are aware of what is going on around us and to provide us with the necessary information to prepare for such a crisis. We need to take their lead and work with our organizations for proper emergency preparedness. Preparedness planning has and will pay off for everyone. Now it is up to you to take the next step for your organization to ensure you are prepared for emergencies, including pandemics – today and in the future.
Patti Dunham, MBA, MA, SPHR is a Senior Human Resources Management Consultant and Manager Outsource Solutions with Strategic Human Resources, Inc. (www.strategichrinc.com). If you have questions or comments about this article, you can contact Patti at Patti@strategicHRinc.com.