The bird flu has yet to develop the ability to jump from human to human and become a pandemic, but many businesses are not waiting to find out if it will.
Some companies are going so far as to set entire buildings aside as “clean facilities” in which workers and families would remain during a bird flu outbreak. At least two financial institutions are setting up such voluntary quarantines and two utilities are considering it, according to Gary Lynch, national practice leader for business continuity risk management at Marsh Inc. He said the companies plan to pay premiums and offer antiviral drugs to employees who take part.
Most companies’ steps are less extreme, such as making sure that key employees can work from home. But companies large and small are advised to have plans for the enormous work force disruptions that bird flu might bring.
“It’s going to be every company for itself,” said Mark Mansour, a partner with the Foley & Lardner law firm in Washington, D.C., who has been advising companies on their preparations. At least one, he said, has pored over its workers’ upcoming travel plans and eliminated trips to potential bird flu hot spots.
Generally, big companies and those that do business in Asia — which has suffered more than 100 bird flu deaths and the 2003 SARS outbreak — began preparing first.
For example, DuPont Co. is considering giving employees kits with masks and disinfectant and is assessing ways to continue manufacturing with reduced staffing. Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to keep workers informed over its intranet radio station.
Now, however, fears that the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu could begin to spread internationally are promoting small businesses to consider their options as well.
Bird flu sparked a crisis meeting last month at Ervin and Smith, a 40-person public-relations firm based in Omaha, Neb. The firm is arranging to have freelancers on call if staffers fall ill.
At Childs Capital, a New York-based investment firm, founder Donna Childs has informed the staff they should work remotely if the flu cripples public transportation to the company’s Wall Street office. Meanwhile, Childs would use a service that can open and scan the firm’s mail so its bills could be paid online.
And Childs has gone a bit further, following lessons learned firsthand in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when her apartment building near the World Trade Center was evacuated and her office closed for a week.
One thing she realized then was the importance of keeping extra cash around, a step she plans to repeat in case of bird flu, even if bank shutdowns are unlikely. Employees also are trained to handle multiple responsibilities in case other members of the staff are unavailable.
“Overall, I think people should think about what would happen if you couldn’t work in your premises for whatever reason,” said Childs, who has co-authored a book about how small businesses should get ready for big disruptions. “That would prepare you for most threats.”
Not everyone can telecommute, of course. That’s why Andrew Spacone, who heads crisis planning at Providence, R.I.-based manufacturer Textron Inc., has been mulling other ideas.
One is to make sure that company cafeterias are using disposable cups and utensils, eliminating the risk of spreading the virus through poorly washed silverware.
Should bird flu ripple through the United States, the five executives on Textron’s management committee would cease assembling in the same room and instead would hold conference calls.
The company’s intranet site just got a new section advising employees on bird flu and how to recognize its symptoms. Textron’s 37,000 employees might be e-mailed questionnaires to help them figure out if they are sick and infectious. Depending on the scale of the pandemic, Spacone is prepared to take workers’ temperatures at facility entrances and send people with fevers home. He also would stagger shifts and move workstations further apart, out of sneezing and coughing range.
Experts in workplace law say companies that fail to adequately plan could face thorny problems later. There could be shareholder lawsuits, breach-of-contract cases or union grievances over forced time off.
Daniel Westman, a partner who specializes in employment law at Morrison & Foerster in McLean, Va., foresees trouble if companies that increase telecommuting don’t train employees in how to protect sensitive data on desks and computers in their homes.
Despite these risks, AMR Research, an analyst firm, determined in March that 68 percent of companies larger than $1 billion were unprepared for a pandemic. One of the biggest reasons was an inability to let employees and customers conduct business remotely.
“Like in most crises, a lot of people tend to be in denial,” said Brent Woodworth, who heads the crisis response team at IBM Corp., which is launching a new service this month to help companies assess their flu preparedness.
The assessment will cost $10,000 to $150,000, depending on an organization’s size. Among the consultants’ suggestions: Identify maintenance and other noncritical functions that can wait until a pandemic subsides. Figure out alternate routes for supplies. And be prepared to rent space on high-speed satellite networks if telecommuting employees’ home Internet services are swamped by overuse.
Even with attention to detail, Textron’s Spacone expects that no large company would emerge unscathed through a period in which absentee rates could reach 40 or 50 percent because of sickness, panic or crises such as the shutdown of schools.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Spacone, a retired Army colonel. “If an acute pandemic is in your area, there will be times when you simply have no choice but to shut down your business.”