Business leaders should prepare now for an influenza pandemic — or any other public health problem — by creating a plan and making sure employees can follow it.
Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment is assisting businesses through a series of guidelines developed by regional business leaders to help local businesses begin the process.
“From the perspective of businesses, we wanted to look at what we could do to prepare work forces and prepare for business continuity,” said committee member Ken Pinnock, director of human resource services at Mountain State Employers Council. “If this happened, how would businesses keep functioning? At our office, we were getting phone calls from businesses — what their obligations were, how they should handle this.”
The guidelines are not a plan themselves, cautioned committee member Patrick Hilleary, director of operations at Brookfield Properties in Colorado Springs. Business plans should be tailored to fit specific needs, he said.
“These are the guidelines they need to include in their plan,” he said. “Plans are going to vary widely. But while this can apply to any public health situation — it does specifically address the flu.”
Public health officials are concerned that a mutation in the bird influenza could allow swift human-to-human transmission, causing a global pandemic similar to the swine flu of 1912 which killed thousands worldwide.
“The Colorado Department of Public Health has been working on a plan for a couple of years now,” Hilleary said. “They decided they needed input from private sources, from businesses, because of the enormous economic impact it could have.”
The business guidelines include information about how to identify core functions necessary to continue business as usual, even during a flu epidemic, which could continue for more than a year, experts said.
Information technology functions, maintaining virtual private networks, accounting arrangements, paying expenses and creating ways to pay sales staff who work on commissions are a few of the suggestions from the subcommittee. Each business should examine what must be done to keep a business running during a pandemic, Pinnock said.
“There are unique characteristics of a pandemic,” he said. “And employers really need to prepare. The thinking should be ‘what would we do if …’ and how to keep those operating elements available.”
Companies should also focus on cross training, how markets could change and making sure that any outsourced vendors have their own plan in place. Pinnock said the main goal is business continuity.
“We deal with businesses all the time — employers who have human resource or legal questions,” he said. “And we see these questions all the time. It’s best to be prepared. The planning exercise is about business continuity, making sure the business is there when the pandemic is over.”
Health officials estimate than up to 40 percent of the work force might be unable to go to work during a pandemic — due to their own illness, or the illness of family members. Businesses should consider telecommuting and other options during an emergency, Pinnock said.
Protecting key assets, identifying lines of credit and key customers, implementing alternative work locations and considering surge capacity needs also are part of the guidelines, which were released Tuesday by the Department of Public Health and are available at http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/.
“Unlike the disasters that most organizations plan for, a pandemic will not primarily affect equipment and facilities, but rather the people organizations depend on to produce products and services,” the report said. “Current assumptions about a pandemic’s duration push the boundaries of most existing absence-from-work policies. Organizations must thoroughly examine their human resource management practices …”
One important aspect of the pandemic planning process: businesses should be aware that state and federal laws could be modified during a pandemic.
“Examples of this include: voluntary self-quarantine, suspension of public gatherings like football games, closure of buildings where many people gather,” the report said. “Be sure to involve your own human resource and legal counsel as necessary throughout this process.”