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There's a chance it will pass without big impact; are you willing to risk it?

Surviving the current turbulent economy has been taxing on North Bay businesses.  And just as some analysts report that the country could be headed for economic recovery, the possibility of a national swine flu, formally “H1N1 virus,” outbreak could take a toll on workplace productivity and business owners’ bottom lines.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently released an 86-page report that assigns values to the potential severity of the virus this fall. In the event of an influenza pandemic, North Bay employers will play a significant role in protecting employees’ health and safety, as well as limiting any negative impact on the economy and society.

If a business with six employees has even two staff members call in sick, 33 percent of the work force is missing. On the other hand, if the recession and economic concerns are causing sick employees to come to work out of fear of losing their jobs, the virus could potentially spread at a faster rate.

Disasters like an H1N1 outbreak tend to have lingering effects, so before an employee’s next sneeze or cough causes panic, business managers should take steps now to prepare for staffing shortages and other workplace disruptions. After all, the mere mention of an outbreak could cause significant absenteeism, changes in business patterns and/or halted supply and delivery.

One of the first steps to help prepare a business for an outbreak is reviewing the company’s sick-time policy with employees and encouraging anyone who may be ill to use their available time – while reassuring them that taking sick time will not affect management’s view of their performance.  The company might also want to consider modifying vacation and absenteeism policies temporarily to alleviate the possibility of infected, or potentially infected, employees coming to work.

Businesses should also consider allowing employees the flexibility to stay home to recuperate or tend to sick relatives.  Now is also an ideal time for employers to consider alternative work arrangements, such as telecommuting.  When implemented properly, a telecommuting program could mean the difference between keeping a company operational or having business come to a complete halt for a prolonged period of time should a pandemic occur.

Unlike weather-related disasters, an influenza pandemic would be more widespread, impacting multiple areas of the country simultaneously.  The event could be prolonged with several waves of outbreaks lasting for an extended period of time.

Forward-thinking executives will begin continuity planning now and develop a disaster relief plan. Lack of a formal plan could result in a surge of business operations failures as managers attempt to tackle challenges associated with inadequate resources and employees who might not be prepared to take on extra workloads. Below are a few human resources considerations from the professionals at Administaff to begin developing a disaster relief plan for an influenza outbreak or other catastrophe:

-- Identify essential and non-essential employees.  Managers should be cross-trained, where appropriate, to execute essential functions to ensure resiliency.

-- Evaluate communications systems.  Employees should be properly advised of an emergency phone number or Web site they can rely on for company updates or other important information such as closings, alternate schedules, etc.

-- Continued benefits and payment of wages.  Consider how you will ensure that each employee will continue receiving paychecks and access to important benefits.

More than ever, North Bay employers must be cognizant of polices and procedures that will keep their employees healthy and ensure the success of their companies by reducing the impact a virus outbreak could have on business operations. One way to do this is to have a formal plan in place and make employees aware of management’s support. Proactive executives who invest time developing a disaster plan now will find business continuity to be more manageable should an influenza outbreak, or any other business-hindering disaster, strike.

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Diana Gregory is a senior human resource specialist in San Francisco for Administaff (NYSE:  ASF), a professional employer organization serving as a full-service human resources department that provides small and medium-sized businesses with administrative relief, big-company benefits, reduced liabilities and a systematic way to improve productivity. The company operates 50 sales offices in 23 major markets. For more information about Administaff, call 800-465-3800 or visit www.administaff.com.