As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most challenging aspects in the effort to plan for a possible H1N1 pandemic is dealing with the business sector. Unlike schools, there is no central managerial authority to make and implement policies; guidelines have to be created and implemented on a firm by firm basis. It will also have to be done on a volunteer basis as there are no laws or mandates (ie. compulsory sick leave) in most of the country. This will be particularly challenging for smaller companies and their employees. If workers who are ill (or have sick kids home from school) aren’t going to be paid or fear losing their jobs, they may will ignore public health recommendations to stay away from the workplace — which will obviously hamper efforts on H1N1.
I think that one way officials at local, state and federal levels can be helpful is by highlighting businesses of all sizes who are already making plans for their workforce. This attention would provide guidance, encouragement (and, in some cases, pressure) for other organizations. Using the bully pulpit in that way would underscore how seriously the government takes this and make special planning/policies for H1N1 seem like the norm not the exception. The media can also play a constructive role here by examining what is and is not being planned by organizations in their areas. The Minneapolis/St. Paul Star-Tribune recently had a couple of helpful articles along those lines which I wanted to post. According to “Next Test: Flu 101″:
…With the number of flu cases expected to peak within the next five to seven weeks and send absenteeism rates soaring, experts at a national conference in Minneapolis on Tuesday recommended that companies do what they can to make sure sick workers stay home. Suggestions include loosening sick-leave policies or allowing workers to use time off that they haven’t yet accrued.
Some companies already have taken that a step further. Medtronic Inc. is giving all its U.S. employees, including hourly workers, three extra paid sick days because of H1N1. The Fridley-based medical-device manufacturer said its decision was based on concern that workers would still come in despite being sick. “We were getting concerns from particularly the hourly side that if they’d already used up their sick time, well then what?” said Tanya Raso, Medtronic’s director of corporate risk and business continuity. “And managers were feeling some of the pressure of: ‘I’m going to send this person home and potentially they’re going to miss their car payment as a result.’ This will help alleviate concerns on both ends.” Raso said she realizes that some abuse might take place but that the company is relying on the honor code.
Best Buy is telling its managers to make sure employees know it’s OK to take sick time. It’s also telling managers to tell workers to go home if they appear to be sick. If a worker who doesn’t have sick time is sent home during a shift, managers are encouraged to pay the remainder of that day’s shift.
Target and other businesses are waiting to see just how serious the pandemic is before they solidify personnel plans. ”We’re prepared to react and be compassionate depending on the extent of the epidemic,” said Darrell Amberson, president and part-owner of Lehman’s Garage Inc., which employs just under 100 people in Minneapolis and area suburbs.
For now, he plans to shift people among Lehman’s six locations as needed if the flu hits. If it gets worse, he’s considering changing the company’s sick-leave policy. Technicians and other hourly workers earn vacation time but not sick time, but Amberson said it’s unlikely a sick employee would drag himself in if he had the flu just to save a vacation day. “I’d like to think that most of our people are pretty conscientious, and we’re small enough that we have a relatively close-knit group,” he said. “Someone would say, ‘Stay home, take it easy and we’ll cover for you. It will be OK. It’s not worth making other people sick or yourself worse to tough it out.’”
New Horizon Academy, which has 7,000 kids and 1,400 workers in 60 child-care centers in Minnesota, is taking precautions in all of its centers, even telling parents to wash their hands before they go into a classroom. Most of the workers in the centers are paid hourly and accrue paid time off (PTO) but not sick time. The Plymouth-based company is considering allowing workers to use PTO hours they haven’t yet accrued if they need to stay home because of H1N1, said Chad Dunkley, chief operating officer. It also has beefed up its list of substitutes by about two dozen in case the flu takes a toll on workers, he said.
At the conference, called “Keeping the World Working During the H1N1 Pandemic,” experts advised businesses to come up with a plan now, if they haven’t already. And the first priority should be keeping people home without fear of losing their jobs.
Another Star-Tribune article, “What employers are doing”, offers this list of corporate plans:
•Providing three extra paid sick days for all U.S. employees, including hourly.
•Evaluating more flexible sick-time policies if H1N1 escalates.
•Might reduce staff needed at stores if necessary to remain open.
•Offering seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccinations, as available, to employees and customers at some pharmacies.
•Securing hand sanitizers and masks for employees, as well as customers.
•Managers encouraged to pay the remainder of a shift if employee goes home sick.
NEW HORIZON CHILD CARE
•Considering allowing employees to use more personal paid time off than they have accrued.
•Bulking up its list of substitute workers.
DELTA AIR LINES
•Following CDC recommendations; has not made operational changes related to H1N1.
The scope of the challenge for the nation when it comes to businesses and employees during a serious H1N1 pandemic was underscored this week at the conference: fewer than half of the organizations in attendance said they plan to pay employees for time off when they need to stay home to care for their children while schools are closed or to care for sick family members.