Tory Johnson: Preparing for Bird Flu

Just as the events of 9/11 forced American businesses to assess their possible risks from terrorist threats, companies must also now 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 employers. Many have met with health officials and have developed their own contingency plans in the event of a public health scare.

Among the issues:

Worker shortages: 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 two possible back-up scenarios. One option, especially for large companies with multiple offices throughout the country, is to divert workloads to other locations. In some 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.

Does the company have 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.

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, access to files or other key information.

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 US, ask your employer about payroll and benefits plans.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, when the magnitude of the damage was realized, many employers extended pay and benefits to all staffers for a specified amount of time—ranging from a week to three months -- even though these people were unable to report for work. If you don't already participate in a direct deposit program, sign up now. Those who were not yet signed up prior to Katrina had great difficulty in receiving the funds. (By the way, even in the absence of natural disasters or other work disruptions, direct deposit affords employees with 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 HR department. Proper planning and advance knowledge keeps everyone informed and helps prevent panic, which is especially beneficial in times of potential crisis.

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