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."