On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the H1N1 virus, commonly known as the swine flu, has officially reached the level of a pandemic. Swine flu first became big news in the U.S in late April and early May, but within a couple of weeks was off most people’s radars. Although it isn’t yet clear whether it will be the next Black Plague or simply another Y2K-type scare, the signs are pointing to a serious outbreak that could adversely affect employers across the country and the world.
A pandemic flu is a flu that causes a global outbreak of serious illness. The swine flu is caused by a virus that occurs naturally among pigs, but has crossed over to humans. During a pandemic, the particular strain of the influenza virus is passed quickly and easily from person to person. There’s little natural immunity because the virus is new to the human population.
Swine flu symptoms are similar to those of the regular flu, including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. At this point, it is unclear whether it is any more contagious or lethal than the regular seasonal flu. As of June 10, the latest statistics from the World Health Organization indicated more than 25,000 confirmed cases of swine flu and more than 130 deaths worldwide, with more than 13,000 confirmed cases in the United States and 27 deaths. Experts expect the numbers to increase as they complete more tests of individuals who appear to have swine flu.
The current strain of the swine flu is thought to be spread in the same way as the seasonal flu: from person to person. Specifically, the virus is spread when 1) someone who has the virus coughs or sneezes; or 2) a non-infected person touches something that has the virus on it and then touches her mouth or nose. The difference is that most people have some immunity to the seasonal flu. Although no vaccine is expected to be available for several months, anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu may help lessen the severity of the disease.
Needless to say, employers need to be aware of the practical, business, and legal concerns that may arise in the event of a true pandemic. It’s also a good time to revisit your company’s crisis management and business continuity plans.
Audio Conference: Swine Flu: Proactive Preparations and Legal Guidelines for Employers
Employee education and precautions against contagious diseases in the workplace
The biggest obstacle to halting the spread of the disease is that infected people may be able to pass the virus to others beginning one day before symptoms develop. That means employees may be able to pass the flu on to someone else before they know they are sick, as well as while they are sick.
That is why it’s essential for employees to understand the importance of frequently washing their hands or using hand sanitizer. Doing so helps to accomplish two things: 1) it prevents employees who unknowingly already have the virus from spreading it to others; and 2) it prevents employees who come into contact with the virus from actually contracting it. Employees also should be instructed not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth between hand washings, as that is how the virus enters your system.
Because sick employees may continue to be contagious for seven days after first showing symptoms, employers may want to prohibit them from returning to work sooner. In addition, implementing the following measures may help to ensure employee health:
- Make sure employees are specifically instructed to stay home if they exhibit a certain level of flu symptoms. Each employer will have to decide how restrictive to be in this regard. The conservative approach would be to prohibit even those employees who suffer from what appear to be allergies or the common cold from reporting to work. Such an approach may reduce the spread of flu in the workplace, but also could result in an unnecessary loss of productivity. A more practical approach may be to adopt the same types of criteria used in many school districts. These typically prohibit children from attending school only if they have a fever, experience vomiting or diarrhea, or have some other notable symptom beyond what one would experience with allergies or the common cold.
- Encourage employees who experience flu symptoms to promptly seek medical care. Anti-viral medications are generally considered to be more effective when they are started early in the progression of the disease. Employers may want to investigate whether it is advisable to allow employees who have taken an anti-viral to return to work in less than a week.
- Take a direct, proactive approach to reducing the spread of the virus in the workplace. For example, employers could provide ample supplies of Kleenex, hand sanitizers, and even face masks if the pandemic potential worsens significantly. Adopting extra precautions in cleaning common areas such as lunch or break rooms, restrooms, and reception areas may also be warranted. Telephone handsets that are shared by employees or the public are a particular hazard. Consider providing wipes next to publicly used telephones so that employees and customers may sanitize them between uses.
- Communicate with employees to minimize the strain on your company in responding to employees’ inquiries and concerns. One way employers can communicate with employees is by using their website or intranet to keep employees advised of any changes in company policy or procedure and any other measures being taken to respond to the situation. More information is always better than less, and providing such information on an easily accessible website is a good way to overcome fear and misinformation from infecting your workforce. Employers also might want to explore ways they can use social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter to keep employees updated on changes.
Business response to swine flu
No matter how diligent employers are, chances are looking good that most American workplaces will be impacted by this particular outbreak of swine flu. Now would be a good time to revisit employee benefits and other policies and procedures in light of the possible pandemic. If an employer is located in an area that is particularly hard hit, consider revising your employee leave and attendance policies to allow additional paid or unpaid leave beyond what it already provides.
Employers also may want to consider granting unpaid leave to employees who aren’t eligible for FMLA leave or who take leave in circumstances that aren’t technically covered by the FMLA. For example, President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu should seriously consider closing temporarily and parents should start making plans because moving children to child care centers won’t fix the problem. In areas where that happens, employers may want to grant leave to employees who must stay home with healthy school-aged children, at least until they can make other child care arrangements.
If an employer doesn’t already have a telecommuting policy, it should consider adopting one now to accommodate employees who are healthy enough to work but not to come to the office. Think about whether to extend the telecommuting option to employees who: 1) are not ill but are reluctant to come to the office for fear of contracting a disease; or 2) need to stay home with a sick child or a healthy child who is home because of a school closing.
Also take into account any technological measures your company may need to take to enable employees to:
- work from home (by making sure they have access to laptops, e-mail, conference calling, and so on); and
- otherwise minimize face-to-face contact – both among employees and with customers – until the potential pandemic passes.
For example, how can an employer provide secure communications and data exchange among employees working in a location that is not the norm? What kind of audio or videoconferencing setup is needed? What would be needed to conduct conference calls with multiple employees if they are all offsite? If many people are working from home are any computer network changes needed?
Employers also may want to conduct a skills inventory of all employees so that if someone is sick, they will be armed with knowledge regarding which employees are qualified to take over other employees’ responsibilities.
HR Executive Special Report: How to Make Telecommuting Work for Your Company
Legal considerations for employers
Many of the legal issues that employers should be aware of are the same as for any health issue. However, the potential for crossing the line on employee privacy may increase with the severity of the situation. Employers shouldn’t let their desire to prevent harm to their business cloud their judgment regarding compliance with legal requirements such as:
- The privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and state workplace privacy laws, which restrict what employers are allowed to ask employees about their health; or
- The Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) restrictions on the types of health questions that may be asked before hiring an individual.
Employers should make sure they also resist their desire to treat employees differently based on a perceived greater risk to certain employees’ health. For example, employers should not instruct pregnant, employees with chronic illnesses, or older employees that they should stay home to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. Doing so could violate state or federal discrimination statutes.
Employers that are forced to close their doors or have employees working from home also must consider the wage and hour implications for employees who aren’t allowed to work because of an office closing or non-exempt employees who work from home. Employers may be obligated under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or state laws to pay exempt employees their full salary if they work any part of the week. Also keep a close eye on hours worked and overtime that may be owed as a result of unpredictable changes to work schedules.
State-by-state comparison of 50 employment laws in 50 states, including privacy, discrimination, and wage and hour issues
You can never go wrong by following the Scout motto to “be prepared.” Although the swine flu’s toll in the United States has been minor in comparison to what is being reported in Mexico, this is a good reminder to revisit your company’s disaster plan and business continuity plan if you haven’t done so recently. As we’ve already seen this year, no part of the United States is immune to natural disaster and a flu virus in one country can quickly make its way across the globe.
Employers can keep up to date on the latest information regarding the swine flu outbreak at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website and the federal government’s one-stop website on the pandemic flu. On the CDC’s website, you also can view FluAid, a test version of software designed to help planners by providing estimates of potential impact by localities. Employers also can follow the CDC on Twitter and find CDC videos on swine flu at the agency’s YouTube channel.
Free H1N1 Influenza and Pandemics Policy from HR Hero