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And this little piggy went to your workplace… and might decide to stay

August 31st, 2009  |  Deborah Hammonds

>The resurgence of the H1N1 influenza (swine flu) this fall and winter could infect approximately 30-50 percent of the US population, hospitalizing up to 1.8 million people and causing between 30,000-90,000 deaths, according to recent estimates from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in an 86-page report to the White House assessing the government’s preparations for the H1N1 influenza. Employers, who are already reeling from the recession, must also brace themselves for the return of the H1N1 influenza because a pandemic could result in an estimated 30-40 percent reduction of their workforce and significant absenteeism for up to 12 weeks.

While the H1N1 influenza discovered last spring was decidedly less severe than originally anticipated, the flu strain, for which a vaccine is not expected until October, seems to be targeting a disproportionate number of children and young adults, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This is a key reminder to employers that employees may be absent from work not just because they are sick, but also to care for their sick family members.

Timing. The fall resurgence may well occur as early as September, beginning with the school term, with the peak infection hitting in mid-October, according to the President’s Council report. However, significant availability of the H1N1 vaccine is currently projected to begin only in mid-October, with several additional weeks required until vaccinated individuals develop a protective immunity. The government is asking employers to consider offering not just the seasonal flu vaccine to their employees, but also the H1N1 vaccine, once it’s available. The federal government has said that the vaccine will be provided at no cost to health care providers. Even then, (1) pregnant women, (2) health care workers/emergency medical responders, (3) parents or guardians of infants under 6 months of age, (4) persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years of age and (5) individuals under 65 who are at higher risk for H1N1 influenza because of chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems would be the first to receive the vaccine, according to the CDC, with the elderly and then everyone else next in line. The majority of the H1N1 vaccine will be in multi-dose vials, with the remainder in single-dose syringes or nasal sprayers.

Given all the unknowns related to the H1N1 vaccine—owing to its availability and coverage—it begs the question, what should employers be doing now?

Recommendations for employers. Updated guidance from the CDC encourages employers to plan now for the impact that both the seasonal and the 2009 H1N1 influenza could have on their employees and operations. Among the CDC’s suggestions are the following:

  • Review or establish a flexible influenza pandemic continuity plan and involve your employees in developing and reviewing the plan;
  • Have an understanding about your organization’s normal seasonal absenteeism rates and know how to monitor your personnel for any unusual increases in absenteeism through the fall and winter;
  • Engage state and local health departments to confirm channels of communication and methods for dissemination of local outbreak information;
  • Cross-train personnel to perform essential job functions so that the workplace is able to operate even if key staff are absent;
  • Assess your essential functions and the reliance that others and the community have on your services or products; be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations (e.g., identify alternative suppliers, prioritize customers, or temporarily suspend some of your operations if needed);
  • Allow sick employees to stay home without fear of losing their jobs;
  • Develop other flexible work arrangements (i.e., telecommuting) to allow workers to stay home to care for sick family members or for their children if schools dismiss students or child care programs close;
  • Share your influenza pandemic plan with employees and explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave, pay and benefits policies will be available to them;
  • Encourage infection control practices in the workplace such as displaying posters that address and remind employees on correct hand and respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette;
  • Consider canceling non-essential, face-to-face meetings and travel during flu season; and
  • Add a “widget” or “button” to your company web page or employee web sites so employees can access the latest information on influenza: http://www.cdc.gov/widgets/ and http://www.cdc.gov/SocialMedia/Campaigns/H1N1/buttons.html.

In addition to the obligation to provide your employees and customers with a safe and healthy workplace, employers must avoid any liability issues that may arise when responding to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic.