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Local, National Employers Ramping Up Measures To Limit Flu's Impact



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Local, National Employers

Ramping Up Measures To Limit Flu’s Impact

By John Voket

Big businesses across the nation, including several of Newtown’s largest corporate employers, are spending serious time and money trying to limit the swine flu pandemic’s impact on operations, from bankrolling video on good hygiene to training employees to cover for co-workers with critical jobs.

Companies whose bottom lines are tied to the health of their workforces are arranging for employees with flu symptoms or sick family members to work from home where possible, holding fewer in-person meetings, even discouraging handshakes. And hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes, and tissues are at the ready everywhere as employers make keeping workers healthy their first line of defense.

“Our employees are much more aware these days and have been taking extra precautions such as frequent use of hand sanitizers, disinfecting of work spaces and phones,” said Tanya Wulff Truax, vice president/marketing and public relations for Newtown Savings Bank. “And the bank has an active disaster recovery plan which addresses all possible emergencies, including flu pandemics, as it relates to day-to-day operations.”

Employers are playing Dr Mom, teaching about hygiene, distributing information about the pandemic, telling folks to stay home if they get sick — generally with pay -— and scrapping the required doctor’s note. Some companies have even distributed “wellness kits” with thermometers and face masks.

Whether those efforts and other measures will protect businesses will depend largely on whether the swine flu mutates into a more-dangerous virus.

“We haven’t had any sign of outbreak yet, so we’ve been lucky,” said Steven Bowen, CFO at Sonics & Materials on Church Hill Road. “And we’re also taking precautions, offering things like hand sanitizer around the office.”

According to Mr Bowen, his company already has secure remote computing access in place for all key employees in the event they are restricted to home for more than a day or two with sick family members, or if they are affected themselves. He said Sonics & Materials is also in the process of upgrading protocols and practices to be even better prepared in the event of widespread employee absences.

“Large and midsized organizations are not going to go bankrupt. Small organizations, that could be different,” said Jim MacMicking of Pennsylvania-based business continuity consultants SunGard Availability Services. His company has seen a surge of customers seeking guidance on preparing for swine flu and either beefing up their telecommunications capacity or, if they cannnot afford it because of the weak economy, reallocating laptops and other equipment to key personnel.

Dozens of companies interviewed by The Associated Press report little effect — so far. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pandemic planners also have seen no big disruptions.

But a large Harvard School of Public Health study found two-thirds of businesses could not maintain normal operations if half their workers were out for just two weeks. And the CDC estimates every person who comes to work with swine flu will infect ten percent of his or her co-workers.

Flu Shots Help

Companies contacted locally and nationally appear to be heeding advice from health and business groups on how to avoid a catastrophe. Many have provided seasonal flu vaccines free to employees or even employees’ families and stepped up cleaning schedules.

Margaret Steeves said that all employees at its Connecticut facilities, including Masonicare of Newtown, were offered free seasonal flu vaccines, and although she said they were not required as a condition of employment, “We’ve had extremely high compliance.”

Unfortunately, stock of the H1N1 vaccine the organization ordered weeks ago has not yet been delivered. But this would not deter Masonicare from providing the staffing required to keep all its facilities up and running at capacity.

“Should the Newtown staff be hit hard, we have reserves of trained employees available and ready across the state, and we have our own transportation department ready with enough vehicles to get them from home to work if necessary.”

Just about every company canvassed by the AP has done staff presentations on swine flu or set up an information site on its intranet. Health insurer Aetna Inc posted a video internally and on YouTube in which cute little kids explain how not to get the flu: http://tinyurl.com/yjzsjzl

While data storage company EMC Corp now has doorknobs and handrails in every office scrubbed daily, huge employers like the Ford Motor Company disinfects the work areas of anyone who has had the virus.

Besides promoting healthy behavior and arranging to temporarily get by without some workers, many employers are making backup plans for distributing their products and asking key suppliers what they have done to ensure they can keep delivering during a pandemic.

“That is really one of the major concerns,” particularly for manufacturers that keep tiny inventories of raw materials on hand, says Mr MacMicking.

Donald R. Droppo, Jr, Senior Vice President, Marketing & Sales at Curtis Packaging said in the event of widespread illness within Curtis, there is a business contingency plan to ensure we will not miss customer deliveries.

“If we did have a large outbreak and numerous employees were out sick, we are members of the Independent Carton Group,” Mr Droppo explained. “The ICG is a collection of exclusive privately-held packaging companies spread throughout the United States that act as backups facilities on the rare event of a fire, natural disaster, pandemic, etc. If necessary, we would email the job files to one of our ICG members and they would print and convert the job so our customer needs won’t skip a beat.”

If the pandemic worsens, companies will step up efforts.

Credit card lender Discover Financial Services and other companies with multiple locations plan to shift workloads around if one location is swamped by sickness. Cable TV operator Comcast Corp has backup cable technicians set to take over appointments of sick ones.

Cannot ‘Phone It In’

Utility companies, retailers, restaurants, construction firms and many other businesses likewise cannot simply have workers phone it in. Smaller firms, with few resources and small talent pools, also are in a tight spot. They cannot do much cross-training, so they are mainly promoting health.

VitalSmarts, a Provo, Utah, consulting firm that trains workers in interpersonal skills, held a class on how to clean under rings and fingernails. The company also gave out free seasonal flu shots not just to the company’s 85 employees, but to their family members as well, and is not counting days spent home with the flu toward annual limits.

American Electric Power, one of the largest US power generators, plans to sequester its most critical employees for a while if needed — housing, feeding, and otherwise caring for them. The Columbus, Ohio, company has run drills to ensure it can keep the lights on if one-third or more of the work force is out sick, and stocked a 90-day supply of surgical masks, disinfectants, and respirators for 20,000 employees and 5,000 contractors, said Ted Kwiatkowski, manager of business recovery services.

“We are not planning for what it is today. We are planning for what it could eventually be,” he says.

Telling people to stay home if sick is fine for those guaranteed a paycheck, but a tough sell for the 50 million US workers who have no paid sick leave.

“I think what you’ll see there is people will want to come to work even if they’re sick,” says Ann Beauchesne, head of emergency preparedness at the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents small businesses.

Down on Commerce Road, the financial services firm TR Paul has been reinforcing “common sense” measures, according to HR representative Lisa Pescetelli.

“We sent a memo out with precautions, and we are prepared to make further accommodations if the flu becomes widespread among our workforce,” she said. “In the meantime, we’ve put up posters reminding employees about hand washing and other preventative practices, and we’ll be monitoring situation as it goes.”

Associated Press content was used in this report.

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