Preparing for a Renewed Swine Flu Outbreak

Smart small business owners should always prepare and regularly update business continuity plans in case their operations are slowed or shut down entirely due to a natural or manmade disaster. But the push for planning is particularly strong this summer with the specter of a renewed outbreak of pandemic swine flu in North America this fall.

While the H1N1 flu discovered last spring does not appear to be as virulent as originally feared, it has been responsible for thousands of illnesses during the Southern Hemisphere's flu season, with more than 300 deaths reported in Argentina alone as of early this month. The newly discovered flu strain, for which a vaccine is not expected until October, seems to be targeting a disproportionate number of children and young adults.

While larger corporations can continue business as usual even while many employees are out sick, small firms that rely heavily on key individuals may find themselves nearly incapacitated if several of those key people get sick, must stay home with sick children, or are in areas put under quarantine.

Phone TreesAt a minimum, small business owners should update employees' contact information to include current home phone numbers and addresses, e-mail addresses, and cell phone numbers. Some employers establish phone trees so they can efficiently contact all their employees to check on and alert them during an emergency.

Another vital component to a business continuity plan is to collect contact information, including cell phone numbers, for their suppliers, vendors, and key customers. Keep this information in print and online, and store copies off-site in case you can't get into your office.

A host of legal and medical questions may arise for small business owners if swine flu roars back with a vengeance this fall, says John Robinson, employment law practice group leader at Fowler White Boggs law firm in Tampa.

"Imagine you run a small business like a day-care center, where vulnerable children congregate and colds and flu are prevalent. Do you close and send your entire staff and all children home at the first sign of any flu? Do you send home only sick children and sick staff? When? When do you reopen or allow them to return?" he asks. "What information and medical clearance would you need to send staff or children home, allow them to return, close or reopen the center? These are not easy questions."

Backup StaffHe recommends that companies prepare for operational disruptions by doing employee cross-training or lining up backup staff now. "Employers should review and enhance existing emergency disaster plans to ensure business continuity. Employers that are just getting started should develop a plan that includes pandemic preparedness, and review it and conduct drills regularly," Robinson says. A checklist for flu policy is posted at the government's flu awareness Web site.

Kate Lister, an author and telework researcher, says that companies—particularly small ones —should start preparing for "social distancing" now. (The term describes preventing individuals from clustering in large groups where infections are more likely to spread.) Strategies such as working from home, staggered shifts, and flexible work hours may become necessary if swine flu becomes widespread this fall.

"Regular telework is the fire drill of pandemic preparedness," Lister says. "Requiring staff to work at home on a regular basis allows companies to test that their systems, software, hardware, security, and communications protocols are capable of supporting a remote workforce if the worst happens. It gives employees an opportunity to get used to working from home and managers an opportunity to learn how to manage remote teams."

Aside from preparing and practicing for pandemic, small business owners may want to check with their attorneys for advice on unusual situations, Robinson says: "What do you do with employees who are medically vulnerable to the flu or those with young children or elderly relatives at home? Do you send them home? When and for how long? With pay?"

Paid Sick Leave?The federal Family Medical Leave Act provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or sick family members. Generally, Robinson says, FMLA regulations do not cover flu absences unless complications arise, but courts recently have interpreted the FMLA to mandate leave for the flu and other viral infections.

However, the federal law does not cover firms with fewer than 50 employees, Robinson says. "Small employers usually do not have to provide sick leave, so it is a surprise to many employees that they are not entitled to any sick leave, much less any paid sick leave," he notes.

Another question for your human resources manager and/or attorney is what communications responsibility you have as a business owner if one of your employees is diagnosed with swine flu. "There are health confidentiality and privacy issues for employees, so employers should not disclose personal health information," he says. "But employers do not want a modern day Typhoid Mary spreading swine flu at work. If there is an employee with confirmed swine flu, some employers are alerting employees that there may be swine flu exposure at work without identifying the involved employee."

You might need to think about giving an infected person's immediate co-workers enhanced sick leave to protect themselves or family members, particularly if they have particular medical vulnerability to the illness, he says. Some employers bring in cleaning crews to disinfect an office where swine flu has been found. Providing hand disinfectant for employees is not a bad idea, for starters, Robinson says.

Many government and business organizations' Web sites offer information on swine flu preparedness, including the Centers for Disease Control, The World Health Organization, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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