Employers Unprepared for Flu Pandemic

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.

Pharmacy and retail giant Walgreen gave no details about its plans to keep operating in the event of a widespread outbreak.

"We do have emergency planning in place for a variety of disasters, including health disasters and other emergencies, so we would follow those guidelines in the incident of a flu pandemic," company spokeswoman Carol Hively said. "We don't go into specifics for a number of reasons, including security."

Such vague responses don't inspire confidence that companies are pursuing concrete measures to protect their workers and ensure that business continues for customers who will depend on their products and services, Elliott said.

Shareholders would be wise to question companies about their plans, she said, by asking: Do they know if their business interruption insurance covers losses stemming from a pandemic? Do personnel policies penalize workers for staying home when they're sick? Are they providing workers hand sanitizers and basic infection-control information? How would they handle long-term absenteeism and paying workers during a crisis? Are they exploring options for workers to telecommute if possible and expanding self-service and online options for customers and business partners?

Employees also need to ask what kind of contingency plans are in place, Elliott said.

"We don't want anyone being a hero and coming to work if they have pandemic flu," she said. "That's a mentality at many companies that has to be changed. Many times they want to be seen as an employee who's so necessary they can't take a day off and other times they have a real fear of lost wages, especially for hourly workers."

About half of workers in the U.S. lack paid sick time. Still, studies have shown that workers are more willing to listen and follow their employer's guidance during a time of crisis than at other times, she said.

Some of the preparedness questions that plague employers revolve around what happens if the federal government orders a business to shut down temporarily versus an outfit that voluntarily closes its doors, how quarantine procedures play out and whether schools will close.

And there's no easy answer to determine when and whether companies should continue to pay their work forces if they're severely hampered in a pandemic, Elliott said. "That's where people stop and say 'We can't deal right now.' But they're going to have to figure it out."

Knight Ridder content Copyright 2005 provided via The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.