Companies Must Prepare for the Bird Flu

Just as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, forced American businesses to assess their possible risks from terrorist threats, companies now must also address the likely disruptions caused by any potential discovery of bird flu in this country.

Workers' health concerns and the interruption of productivity are the chief worries of most employers. Many have met with health officials and have developed their own contingency plans in the event of a public health scare.

Worker shortages are a key issue. A shutdown of public transportation would make it difficult for employees to get to work. In addition, shortages in manpower would result from employees becoming ill, taking time off to care for others, tending to children when school is closed, or staying home to avoid infection.

To address this concern, employers are planning for a few possible back-up scenarios. One option, especially for large companies with multiple offices throughout the country, is to divert workloads to other locations that aren't affected by bird flu. If your employer is thinking along these lines, it's essential to document protocols and conduct various drills now to ensure a smooth transition is plausible.

Well employees might also be required to work longer shifts. Instead of a typical eight-hour shift, demands due to shortages in manpower would mean an extension to 10- or 12-hour shifts. Job-sharing is another likely scenario to enable fewer people to cover required tasks. In other cases, employees may be expected to work from home.

As an individual, you should talk to your manager about the company's contingency plans in the event of an outbreak. Ask how information will be conveyed and shared among staffers.

This past December, my office reviewed such procedures when the public transit strike in New York appeared likely. Since all but one employee relied on subway service to get to work, we developed back-up plans -- including alternative transportation and hours of operation -- to ensure a minimal disruption in our business.

In the event of a public health crisis or other challenge that makes it impossible to report for work, find out now if your company has a toll-free number for employees to check in. This proved to be a very valuable resource during Hurricane Katrina, enabling employees to notify their companies about their whereabouts and their ability to work. On the flip side, these toll-free numbers also provided details from the employer to its workers on location closings and other up-to-the-minute information.

For small businesses, create a "call chain," which is a system whereby the top decision maker notifies the next in command of the implementation of emergency contingency plans and the calls continue down the line. For this to be effective, be sure your master lists include land lines and cell numbers of employees, as well as back-up numbers for neighbors or next of kin.

If you think you may be required to work from home, do you have the necessary back-up files and equipment? This may include a computer, Internet access, phone, jump drives, access to paper or electronic files, or other key information to conduct business.

Even though the health and safety of you and your family will no doubt be your primary concern, don't underestimate the importance of securing your employment and finances ahead of time. If the government should announce that bird flu has been reported in the United States, ask your employer about payroll and benefits plans.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, when the magnitude of the damage was realized, many employers quickly extended pay and benefits to all staffers for a specified amount of time -- ranging, on average, from a week to three months -- even though these people were unable to report for work. If you do not already participate in a direct deposit program through your employer, sign up for it now. Those who were not yet signed up prior to Katrina had great difficulty receiving the funds. By the way, even in the absence of natural disasters or other work disruptions, direct deposit offers many great benefits, including speed of funds availability.

Depending on the nature of its business, your employer may also offer drills and seminars on how to respond in the event of a health scare and what role employees are expected to carry out and/or how their role, if critical to the company's function, would be filled in their absence. If you're unaware of such information, ask your manager or your human resources department. Proper planning and advance knowledge, if well-documented and effectively communicated to all levels of an organization, keep everyone informed and help prevent panic, which is especially beneficial in times of potential crisis.

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