Preparing Your Workplace for a Possible
Swine Flu Pandemic
United States faces a swine flu outbreak that has caused the government
to declare a public health emergency.
still out on whether the swine flu outbreak will become a widespread
pandemic. However, it’s not too soon for employers to start
preparing to prevent influenza spread at work and consider what to do
if the illness reaches pandemic status.
enough people become infected, it could seriously affect many
begin pandemic planning now. Properly implemented, it can help limit
the flu’s impact on employee health—and the
of your organization.
host of possible problems
usually difficult to plan for a crisis and respond to it thoughtfully
while it’s occurring. That’s why planning now is so
important. You’ll be able to act quickly should the need
business is unique, you must customize your pandemic plan to your
particular workforce and business-continuity needs. However, several
practical issues may affect almost every employer.
Some employees may be unable to work because they are sick. Others may
stay away from work because they fear becoming infected.
workplace might become contagious. Ill employees may insist
on coming to work—because they need the income—even
if they should stay home.
work arrangements might be needed.
You might need to consider having employees work remotely if
authorities impose quarantines or employees refuse to or cannot come to
your facilities. If you don’t already, consider
employees to perform critical functions.
employees may refuse to perform some of their regular duties
because they fear being exposed to the flu. Those who travel frequently
or attend large meetings may balk.
employees may not seek healthcare for financial reasons or
out of fear of exposure at the doctor’s office.
may need personal assistance. It might involve finding care
for a sick relative. They may need help obtaining food, water or cash
during a quarantine.
may be unable to focus on work (or work at all) due to the
emotional fall-out of a pandemic. They may need time off, counseling or
obligations as an employer
they plan for a pandemic, employers face competing and complicated
legally obligated to provide a safe workplace. In the face of a
pandemic, you may be liable if your infected employees spread the
best defense will originate in the prevention and response measures you
include in your pandemic plan. It should include:
communicable disease policy. Emphasize that employees with
flu symptoms must not come to work.
education on how to prevent spreading the flu.
Good hygiene is the key. Remind employees to cover their mouths when
they cough and their noses when they sneeze. Throw out used tissues
immediately. Wash hands frequently, or use alcohol-based hand
sanitizer. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
measures to prevent the spread of disease at work.
Employers can reduce the risk of workplace infection by providing air
ventilation and purifying systems, restricting travel and implementing
remote or other work arrangements to reduce personal contact.
there is no way to anticipate all contingencies, but an
employer’s reasonableness often plays a key role in defending
against legal claims.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers an online Business
Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist that can help you audit your
readiness to deal with swine flu.
must balance their obligation to maintain a safe workplace with other
legalobligations. Consult with your attorney for more advice on these
important issues. The FMLA, ADA and other laws may apply here.
will want to make reasonable efforts to keep contagious workers home,
disability laws may limit your right to ask employees about their
medical conditions or require them to take medical exams. In addition,
you must consider employees’ privacy rights and whether
accusing someone of having a pandemic flu could be defamatory.
must also address their legal obligations to employees who must miss
work for medical reasons. You may be legally obligated to provide leave
and restore employees to their jobs when they return from leave.
the circumstances, employees may be entitled to worker’s
compensation benefits, paid time off, disability or other paid
benefits, continued health insurance or unemployment benefits.
a practical matter, be prepared to voluntarily extend your time-off
might also want to consider voluntary, special pay policies designed to
encourage contagious employees to stay home.
employee who isn’t protected by leave or disability law
to come to work out of fear, you may have to decide whether to grant
the time off or terminate the employee. That decision has legal
implications. Consider whether the employee is at-will, as well as the
risk of other legal claims. In particular, OSHA law protects employees
from retaliation if they refuse to work because of good-faith concerns
about workplace safety.
easiest, particularly during these tough economic times, to defer
planning for a pandemic that may not occur. Given the human stakes and
the complexities involved in an actual pandemic, however, advance
planning is critical to ensure a careful, thoughtful response.
Megan Anderson, Esq., a principal at the law form of Gray Plant Mooty
in Minneapolis. She concentrates her practice in
employment law counseling and litigation. Contact her at (612) 632-3000.
Additional reporting by HR Specialist.