Employers Need Pandemic Plan to Protect

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<p><strong>Philadelphia &mdash; Sept. 21</strong><br />Employers would play a major role in protecting the health of their employees during a pandemic and in limiting its impact on the overall economy, and they need to plan proactively for how to proceed should an outbreak occur, according to Pepper Hamilton LLP, a multipractice law firm.<br /><br />All employers should have a plan in place for operating during a pandemic, especially companies in the health care, banking and telecommunications industries, said Heather Hoyt, Pepper Hamilton attorney.  </p><p>&ldquo;Those businesses, in particular, would have a special obligation to plan for an outbreak, since others would depend on them to maintain operations,&rdquo; Hoyt said.<br /><br />A medium-level pandemic could kill 207,000 people in the United States. alone, with another 734,000 hospitalized, and 42 million would visit doctor&rsquo;s offices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  </p><p>&ldquo;Such a pandemic would significantly impact the operations of governments, businesses, schools and health care providers,&rdquo; Hoyt said. “No one can predict the timing and severity of the next pandemic. The avian flu is especially virulent and could cause a severe pandemic.&rdquo; </p><p>This disease is spread by migratory birds, and humans have little or no immunity to it. <br /><br />Although most avian flu cases are thought to be caused by exposure to infected poultry, scientists are concerned that as the virus evolves, it will gain the ability to spread from one person to another.  </p><p>&ldquo;Countries may be able to delay the arrival of the virus through border closures and travel restrictions, but these measures can&rsquo;t stop the virus entirely,&rdquo; Hoyt said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s never too early to start planning for a pandemic. The welfare of your employees and your business depends on it.&rdquo; </p><p>Employers should take the following steps in the event of a pandemic:<br /></p><ul><li><strong>Consider appointing a pandemic coordinator who would be responsible for the company&rsquo;s planning process. </strong>The coordinator would address the impact of a pandemic on the company&rsquo;s operations and finances, as well as those of its suppliers, vendors, and contractors. &ldquo;The coordinator should also be responsible for maintaining up-to-date pandemic information from reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and local public health agencies,&rdquo; Hoyt said.</li><li><strong>Plan for the pandemic&rsquo;s impact on employees.  </strong>Estimate employee absences and identify positions essential to the business. Companies also should cross-train employees and develop alternative ways to function when workers are absent. &ldquo;Plan now for the increased use of e-mail and teleconferencing to minimize face-to-face contact and consider the implementation of engineering controls, such as sneeze barriers and improved ventilation,&rdquo; Hoyt said.</li><li><strong>Review sick leave policies. </strong>Adopt revised sick leave policies to use in the event of a pandemic that provide liberal leave and nonpunitive repercussions to encourage ill employees to remain home.  &ldquo;Flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting, flexible work hours and staggered shifts, can also minimize employee and customer exposure to the flu, as well as prevent spreading it at the workplace,&rdquo; Hoyt said.</li><li><strong>Communication to employees is essential to any plan. </strong>Arrange to have your company&rsquo;s Web site provide up-to-date information. Distribute materials explaining pandemic fundamentals, including strategies to reduce the spread of the flu through good hygiene. &ldquo;Anticipate employees&rsquo; fears and provide clear information about the avian flu and the company&rsquo;s preparedness,&rdquo; Hoyt said.</li><li><strong>Be aware of any Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-related issues that might arise. </strong>&ldquo;Employers may be tempted to obtain medical information on, or even require medical exams of, employees who return from high-risk areas,” Hoyt said. “Although well-intended, such tests likely would violate the ADA.” Similarly, employers who do &ldquo;contact tracing&rdquo; if they learn an employee is infected with the virus may violate the ADA, HIPAA or other privacy laws.  This should be left to the public health authorities.  Employers should consult an attorney before taking any of these actions.</li><li><strong>Anticipate how to handle what could be a large number of leave requests, and the impact these would have on operations.  </strong>The Family and Medical Leave Act will be implicated during a pandemic, as numerous employees will request leaves because of their own illnesses or the illness of a family member. The avian flu likely would qualify as a &ldquo;serious health condition&rdquo; under the law. <br /></li></ul>

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