Many U.S. employers don't have plans in place that would keep them operating in the event that a major flu outbreak disrupts business, according to a new report.
Despite the risks, some firms also don't know if they would encourage potentially contagious workers to stay home during a public-health crisis, according to a survey of large employers from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and The ERISA Industry Committee.
Two-thirds of those polled said their firms weren't sufficiently prepared to protect themselves during a pandemic and 39 percent said there wasn't much they could do in advance, the survey said. More than six in 10 were undecided as to whether they would waive sick-leave policies to allow potentially infectious people to stay home to avoid spreading the disease.
"American businesses are beginning to recognize that a pandemic flu outbreak would present a clear and present danger to their employees, their operations and their bottom lines," Tommy Thompson, chairman of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a prepared statement. The survey results were presented Friday as part of a roundtable meeting in Washington.
There were three pandemics in the last century, the most frightening of which was the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed half a million people in the United States and as many as 50 million worldwide. Some infectious-disease experts believe the world is overdue for a pandemic, defined as a global outbreak resulting from an emerging virus to which humans have little immunity. Last month, President Bush asked Congress for $7 billion to bolster preparedness activities.
Companies received a wakeup call this year after the federal government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina exposed a critical lack of emergency planning, said Kim Elliott, deputy director of Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy organization in Washington.
The spread of bird flu among domestic poultry and migrating birds in Asia and Europe also has brought the possibility of a pandemic more into focus, but many employers still resist planning for worst-case scenarios, she said.
"Companies who were impacted by the SARS outbreak a couple years ago are taking it far more seriously than others," Elliott said. "But still I think there's a lot of denial and 'Is this another Y2K event?' mentality out there."
Firms, like people, can get overwhelmed by the potential scope of the problem, she said. "For some, when you begin outlining what could happen it just becomes too big."
Still, companies need to address the possibility of long-term absenteeism and plan for business interruptions that may see worker absentee rates of 25 percent to 35 percent over four months, Elliott said. They should talk with employees not to scare them but to outline steps they're taking such as redundancy training to fill vital roles should many workers be out at the same time.
At utility holding company Consolidated Edison in New York, which has 14,000 employees and serves 9 million customers, free flu vaccines are the primary prevention program, spokesman Chris Olert said. "Employees are urged, especially those with chronic conditions, to get their flu shots."
But questions about how businesses vital to people's everyday needs -- from grocery stores to electric and gas utilities -- would function during the fear and confusion of a pandemic are being asked more often. Next week, the government is expected to release a list of pandemic preparations companies should take, according to the Associated Press.