Having world-class experts in disease control on staff is obviously an advantage when fears of a pandemic flu emerge. That could be why McMaster University in Hamilton is well-prepared should the H1N1 virus prove more of a problem this fall. The school is expanding its hand washing poster campaigns to all campus buildings, boosting the strength of its cleaners and stockpiling pandemic supplies such as masks and flashlights. When an employee was reported to have the virus, McMaster was on top of it, disinfecting the employee’s work area, notifying individuals who may have had direct contact with the infected person and notifying the local health authority.
But, most importantly, the university has developed a business continuity plan that, should a crisis hit, includes guidelines around the roles of supervisors and employees, materials and supplies, absenteeism and redeployment, critical functions and emergency contacts. The planning can cover any scenario where a group of people might be lost, such as a strike, and small issues with big implications, such as the location of critical supplies, passwords to systems, where keys are stored and remembering to pay the bills.
“As the H1N1 has shown us, you can’t always predict, so a little bit of advance planning, even if it sits there, is a really good insurance policy,” said Andrea Farquhar, director of public and government relations at McMaster.
“Even if it’s not the kind of pandemic that maybe was envisioned early on and even if the severity is still not that high — in that people will get sick but not critically ill — it could still mean they won’t be at work for a week and you could still have pockets where they’re very, very hard hit,” she said.
That concern was mirrored in a recent survey by Canadian HR Reporter that found 84 per cent of 607 respondents are concerned about the possibility of a flu pandemic, with 22 per cent very concerned (see page 31).
As a result, they have several initiatives in the works, the most popular being hand sanitizers, employee communication and informational posters, along with the identification of critical and non-critical staff, teleworking options, possible policy changes, staff training, masks and pandemic-related websites.
Across the board, many employers are focusing on communication and the employee health piece because those are the two big pillars to a preparedness plan, said Paula Allen, vice-president of organizational solutions and training at Shepell-fgi in Toronto, and if you get those down, “you’re in pretty good shape.”
Other necessary steps should include business continuity planning and management support, she said.
“The better-prepared the managers, the better prepared they are to deal with crisis from an emotional point of view, in terms of employees being upset, or being able to execute on a plan,” she said.
Even though people say the virus can be “mild,” people are really sick, the symptoms are quite significant and people are not working at home, said Allen. So the probability and potential impact are enough that it makes sense to prepare.
“If it doesn’t happen in a huge way, you’ll still get benefits to planning from managing whatever does happen,” she said. “If it does happen in a huge way, then at least you can say you haven’t been irresponsible.”
SaskCentral gets serious
But SaskCentral is taking the threat seriously. The Regina-based umbrella organization for 65 credit unions in Saskatchewan has put up awareness posters in washrooms and elevators, provided antiseptic creams, incorporated informational videos in department staff meetings, held training sessions, distributed phone lists and established a critical personnel list should its office have to close. It also created a pandemic preparedness plan in 2006 that has been updated in the past four months.
While the virus might not be any worse than the normal flu, there are higher-risk employees, such as pregnant people or those with asthma, to consider, said Diana Sarauer, manager of operations at SaskCentral.
“If there is going to be a higher severity level in the fall, we want to make sure critical functions are taken care of and staff are protected as well.”
Since the initial impact was less severe than anticipated, the 100-employee organization has revised its shadow policies — to be used during a crisis — to include low, moderate and severe levels, with appropriate responses.
“The main thing is ensuring critical functions are covered off, that we understand them, understand the recovery time, and who’s responsible for them,” said Sarauer. “It’s also making sure we have the capability of working from home.”
Much of the cost associated with an influenza pandemic would stem from employee absenteeism. About 15 to 30 per cent of employees would stay home during a pandemic because of illness, family-care responsibilities or fear of being infected in the workplace, said Amin Mawani, associate professor of the health industry management program at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.
“The good news is that employee absenteeism — and its financial toll on employers — may be controlled to a large extent with adequate planning, good corporate communication to all employees, implementation of good hygiene practices and stockpiling of personal protective equipment (such as masks and gowns) and antiviral medication,” said his report Corporate Risk Managers’ Roundtable on Pandemic Preparedness. “The bad news is that some companies have not yet taken steps to protect themselves.”
Many organizations have failed to react with much vigour — 87 per cent of 527 Canadian companies surveyed in the spring said they had no continuity plan in place to deal with an emergency situation such as a pandemic.
Companies instead are focused on making the necessary adjustments to business as a result of the recession, said Jeff Brownlee, vice-president of public affairs at Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) in Ottawa, which released the survey.
“It’s not that they aren’t convinced of the dangers, but it’s a ‘what if’ and companies are focusing on the ‘what now.’ A potential pandemic is not at the top of the priority list — ensuring they meet payroll and make a profit is,” he said.
While time and money are partly to blame, there is also a lack of understanding, said Brownlee. Almost all (90 per cent) of those queried said they were unsure of what steps to take to safeguard operations, which is why CME created a guide aimed at small business.
“When I talk to companies and say, ‘Are you prepared to lose up to 50 per cent of your workforce due to illness when a pandemic strikes?’ they have not thought about it that way,” said Brownlee. “Nor do they understand pandemic planning. Remember, this means making changes into current operations that are bare bones and, honestly, they don’t even know where to start.”
The federal government announced last month it would spend $926,000 to ensure small and medium-sized businesses are prepared for the next wave of the H1N1 flu, with the International Centre for Infectious Diseases developing strategies businesses can use to cope with an outbreak.
“While some resources are currently available to these businesses, they tend to be very detailed, complex and seemingly overwhelmingly difficult to translate into an operational plan and response,” said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Conservatively, the probability of an influenza pandemic occurring is about eight per cent and the adverse global economic impact is forecast at about $500 billion, according to the World Economic Forum. That estimate was done in January, so the likelihood of a second, perhaps more lethal, wave of virus outbreak during flu season may be higher, said Mawani.
“This is a much bigger risk for businesses than a fire to their property, for which most firms are insured,” he said.
“Not too many people have died but the Canadian death rate is already more than SARS and, per capita, Canada is the leader, so we need to be concerned.”
But pandemics don’t happen often, so they’re not viewed as a real threat. People also think the government will take care of them, which is not true when it comes to organizations, said Mawani.
“There’s no predictive element — it could be much worse, it could be a non-issue,” he said. “And then there’s a recession, so there’s a credit crunch, so people don’t have too much money.”
Many directors are really cautious about spending money, having gone through the preparations for Y2K leading up to the year 2000 or the avian flu scare of 2005, spending a lot of money with little to show for it, said Mario Possamai, a critical incident consultant at Security Management Planning in Toronto.
“They don’t want to be tagged with that again,” he said. “They may have over-prepared, they may have taken measures that have not really added value.”
And maybe the situation won’t be so bad. Only 13 per cent of 213 general practitioners in Canada considered the H1N1 flu virus to be an extremely serious condition, according to a survey in May by TNS Healthcare Canada in Toronto.
“Parallels with the SARS crisis in terms of disease progression, media coverage, public health advisories and political responses likely helped fuel public anxiety in some quarters,” said Paul Pacheco, vice-president at TNS Healthcare.
It may be just a normal flu season and people will question all their efforts, said Gilles Rhéaume, vice-president of public policy at the Conference Board of Canada, but “these pandemics hit with a certain degree of frequency and whether this year or in two or three years, we know the risk is relatively high a virulent pandemic is going to hit us sooner or later.”
Legal considerations for HR
With so much uncertainty around the possibility of a flu pandemic and its severity, employers “are sort of crossing their fingers and hoping it’s not going to affect them,” said Veronica Kenny, an associate specializing in labour relations and employment law at Hicks Morley in Waterloo, Ont.
But there are several legal considerations employers should keep in mind:
Leaves of absence
Pandemic planning hit radar screens in 2003 with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and it popped up again during the bird flu scare in 2005.
Since then there have been some legislative changes, the most significant with Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, said Kenny. It now contains two specific leave provisions that could apply in a pandemic situation.
First, in companies with staff of 50 or more, employees have an entitlement to 10 unpaid “personal emergency leave” days to be used for personal illness, injury or medical emergency of the employee or a family member. Second, employees may be able to claim entitlement to the “declared emergency” leave that was added to the ESA in 2006. This gives an employee the right to a leave of absence if he is unable to perform his duties because of a declared emergency.
“A lot of employers, while they may be aware of the concept in back of their minds, don’t necessarily understand the full applications of those or aren’t necessarily up to date on the newest developments in the law that have occurred,” said Kenny.
Some employers have made improvements to sick plans or sick policies when it comes to ill or quarantined workers, but many organizations will not be prepared, said Kenny. Employees unable to work because of illness caused by the H1N1 virus may be eligible to claim benefits under a sick leave policy, and should be treated like any other sick employee, she said.
In the 2003 SARS crisis, there were questions about the treatment of employees who were quarantined but not ill, and this situation could occur again. A broadly worded sick leave policy may provide benefits in these circumstances, said Kenny. Otherwise employers should assess whether, for example, benefits should be extended on a gratuitous basis instead of having employees apply for employment insurance benefits (if available).
If there are no company-paid sick benefits or those are exhausted, employees may be entitled to employment insurance sickness benefits. Workers who saw their weekly pay reduced at least 40 per cent because of illness, injury or quarantine are eligible for these benefits, provided they have enough insurable hours, said Kenny.
If employers took steps to impose a quarantine to prevent employees from coming to work and earning an income when there may not necessarily be justification to do so, and employers don’t compensate employees by providing benefits, there’s risk of a constructive dismissal claim, she said.
Occupational health and safety
Employers also have to worry about occupational health and safety rules, as there is ongoing litigation as a result of SARS. In May, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down a negligence claim against the Ontario government that was brought by nurses who contracted SARS in 2003.
“It’s definitely a piece of legislation employers should be cautious of,” said Kenny.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, most employees have the right to refuse work if a condition of the workplace “is likely to endanger” their health or safety. Employees encountering, or fearing, the H1N1 virus at work may seek to exercise their right to refuse work in this regard, she said. Employers cannot discipline anyone for exercising this right but can investigate and, if needed, notify a Ministry of Labour inspector.
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Act provides compensation for personal injury or illness on the job, or occupational disease. Such claims were made by health-care workers during the SARS crisis, said Kenny.
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