The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and President Obama have recommended that businesses create contingency plans to protect employees’ health and safety, and to limit the negative impact of the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak on our economy and society.
In addition, The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised its pandemic alert to 5 on a 6 point scale, so many companies are preparing contingency plans now rather than waiting for the crisis to worsen. In response to this call for contingency plans, many companies have asked what this means in practical terms. As a result, Prince Lobel’s Employment Law Group developed the following recommendations aimed at both safeguarding employee safety and reducing the impact on business operations.
Actions relating to reducing the impact on employees and customers:
1. Implement guidelines to reduce the frequency and type of face-to-face contact, such as meetings and events. Encourage the use of videoconferencing technologies.
2. Develop hotlines and dedicated websites to communicate pandemic status and actions to employees, clients, and vendors. Make sure to update this information regularly as the situation continues to evolve.
3. Develop and disseminate programs and materials reviewing pandemic information, including flu signs and symptoms and modes of transmission.
4. Provide access to infection control supplies, such as hand sanitizer products and tissues. Place trash receptacles for their disposal in locations throughout the company.
5. Enhance communications, computer technology and infrastructure, as needed, to support employee telecommuting and remote customer access.
6. Ensure that medical consultation and advice is readily available for emergency response. Review with employees lists of health care providers in relation to available health insurance.
Actions relating to maintaining communications and business operations:
1. Compile emergency contact information for all management and employees, including cell phone numbers and email addresses. Disseminate this information, as appropriate, if the epidemic reaches a pandemic stage.
2. Determine which activities are critical to maintain operations.
3. Cross-train employees to perform the basic functions in essential company operations, such as accounting, payroll, and information technology.
4. Create a project team to develop and document a comprehensive communication plan and update it frequently. This plan should include key contacts and their back-ups, the decision-makers, the appropriate chain of communications, the process for tracking and communicating business and employee status, and privacy control systems. Use all methods available to share this information, including email, company website, and mobile communication devices.
Actions relating to policies for pandemics:
1. Review, create, or modify policies for employee compensation and sick leave absences. Include a policy for when a previously ill person who is no longer infectious can return to work.
2. Review, create, or modify policies for flexible work locations, including an employee’s home and/or satellite offices.
3. Review, create, or modify policies to prevent influenza spread at the worksite. Promote respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette. Exclude people from the workplace if they exhibit flu symptoms until it is determined that they are not contagious.
4. Review, create, or modify policies for employees who have been exposed to pandemic influenza or are suspected to be ill. This includes mandatory testing and immediate mandatory sick leave.
5. Develop protocols for the release and dissemination on pandemic preparedness and the company’s response plan.
NOTE: The Americans with Disabilities Act and comparable state laws prohibit discrimination against employees with disabilities. The Family and Medical Leave Act also provides certain protections. Depending on its severity, pandemic flu could trigger the protections of these laws, and employers need to be aware of the following concerns:
- An employer can require an employee who is suspected of having been exposed to pandemic flu to stay at home, or to provide a medical note or submit to a medical examination before returning to work, if there is accurate and reliable medical information indicating that the employee may be of threat to the health of other employees.
- Any policies must be evenly applied and not discriminate based on protected class status, such as race, age, or sex.
- Employers are required to notify employees in advance if the employer will require a fitness-for-duty certification to return to work.
- To protect privacy rights, disability discrimination laws require employers to keep medical information confidential (i.e., maintained in a separate medical file).