© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the April 2006 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Predictions about avian flu hitting Canada might be unfounded. But having a contingency plan can’t hurt.
By Anna Sharratt
“I THINK THE AVIAN FLU IS BECOMING ANOTHER CASE OF Chicken Little,” writes Jeannie McQuaid, HR supervisor at Belshield Enterprises in Belleville, Ont. on BenefitsCanada.com—a response to our informal Web poll in March. She’s not alone in her belief pandemic fears are overblown. The poll found that 59% of respondents are slightly or not at all concerned about their level of preparedness should a killer flu hit Canada.

But avian flu is moving around the globe and could soon become a human threat. At level three out of a possible six, according to the World Health Organization’s phase of pandemic alert (no or very limited human-to-human transmission), the flu has a mortality rate of 50%.

Do you have a plan? You should, say consultants, and sooner rather than later. “The time to plan isn’t when you’re in the middle of a crisis,” says Alison Schofield, principal in the Toronto health care and group benefits practice of Mercer Human Resource Consulting. “The time to plan is well in advance.”

Coming up with a contingency plan involves a review of current practices and implementation of safeguards. “What we’re instructing clients to do is create a pandemic plan which would really focus on three key areas: coming up with some strategies around health and prevention, strategies around business continuity and strategies around HR policies under which your benefits would fall under,” says Rochelle Morandini, national organizational health practice leader, Hewitt Associates, in Vancouver.

1. Review your policies. A full-scale review of current practices is the first step to understanding where changes might be needed. Do you have satellite offices that could sequester “clean teams”(healthy workers), during an outbreak? What do your long-term and short-term disability plans presently include? What kind of information can your Employee Assistance Plan provider offer plan members to allay fears?

2. Modify benefits plans. High absence rates—20% to 60% over each wave of the illness—will mean offices will be depleted of workers. And workers who aren’t sick could be home caring for sick loved ones. Schofield says a careful examination of STD and LTD coverage, with employment insurance factored in, can fill in holes in coverage and keep sick people at home.

For example, if an employee stays home to care for a sick child, they aren’t covered under STD. But EI has a 15-week benefit for quarantine. So a sponsor might supplement EI benefits under their sick leave benefit plan, providing financial aid to the employee as well as ensuring they don’t come to work, infecting others.

3. Use your EAP strategically. Promoting the EAP can help disseminate information to curb hysteria, and should the avian flu hit, provide counseling and health information.

4. Take a preventive stance. “It really comes down to all the infection control practices,” says Brenda De Jong, occupational health specialist, WorkWell Consulting in Vancouver. She advises employers encourage frequent hand-washing, provide waterless sanitizing gels in bathrooms and building entrances and request maintenance staff to clean offices more frequently.

Distributing masks might also be an option later in the disease cycle. “I would think that people in close personal contact with other people are going to need masks,” says Schofield.

5. Develop a back-up plan. “They need to look at their business continuity issues clearly,” advises Schofield. She suggests staff be cross-trained to avoid loss of key skill sets, crisis communication plans be drawn up to ensure employees are abreast of any workplace changes, and employees be allowed to work from home. Phone trees—in which employees can call each other for information—should also be set up, to ensure communication lines stay open.

“From an HR point of view—if it happens the way it’s being talked about—I think it could be a significant issue for employers,” says Schofield. Bottom line: employers shouldn’t play chicken with avian flu.