BANGOR, Maine — How might a local business be affected by the H1N1 swine flu pandemic? How many employees can be out sick, or home caring for a sick family member, before absenteeism changes the business’s operations and bottom line? If operations are affected, what is the most effective way to communicate with employees, customers and suppliers?
Looking for answers to questions like these, businesses in the Bangor area have begun to sit up and take notice of the worsening H1N1 pandemic, which last weekend was declared a national health emergency by President Obama. On Tuesday, about 50 area businesses were represented at a flu planning workshop offered by Eastern Maine Development Corp. and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.
Tom Gallant of EMDC said businesses must identify key employees and essential business functions and set strategies in place to maintain operations if the flu strikes.
“Are there temporary employees or others who can pinch hit?” he asked. “What are the bare minimum things that you have to do if no one else shows up? And if you’re a really small business, what happens if you get sick?”
Gallant urged businesses to talk in advance with suppliers, subcontractors and customers about the possibility of flu-related interruptions or delays in fulfilling contractual obligations.
Addressing legal concerns about human resource issues, attorney Sarah Newell of the Bangor law firm Eaton Peabody said employers are within their rights to require workers who are visibly ill with flu symptoms to stay home from work. Flu is not considered a disability, she noted, so it is legal to ask workers if they are experi-encing symptoms.
But employers cannot make other inquiries or require a medical exam to determine which employees might be especially at risk of serious illness due to conditions such as pregnancy or chronic illness.
And they cannot require workers to get the H1N1 vaccine.
“But it is OK to highly recommend it,” Newell said.
Newell said employers also have the right to demand that workers get a note from a health care provider to verify that they have been sick with flu and that they are well enough to return to work.
But nurse Kathy Knight of the Northeastern Maine Regional Resource Center said public health officials discourage the practice of requiring doctors’ notes during the H1N1 outbreak.
Though people with either H1N1 or seasonal flu often feel terrible for several days, she said, most do not need medical care but are best served by staying home and resting. Encouraging them to visit a doctor’s office or clinic increases the likelihood that they will infect other people and tie up services needed by others who are sicker, Knight said.
Jessica Fogg of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention told workshop attendees that although H1N1 vaccine has begun arriving in Maine, it will be many months before there are enough doses to protect anyone not in a high-risk group. For now, pregnant women, children, young adults and health care workers are at the top of the list.
For businesses, she said, protecting employee health is the first line of defense against business losses.
“Employee health plays a critical role in the continued operations of a business,” Fogg said. In addition to encouraging workers to get vaccinated as soon as possible against both seasonal influenza and the H1N1 flu, she said, employers must adopt other measures to limit the spread of the virus within the workplace.
Requiring workers to stay home while they are ill with or recovering from flu symptoms, encouraging them to work from home and emphasizing the need for frequent hand washing are basic steps that can help keep flu from spreading, Fogg said. Separating workstations by at least seven feet and discouraging personal contact such as shaking hands are also effective, she said.
“You need to think outside the box about how you do things every day,” Fogg said.
For Paul and Anne Marston, who own businesses in Ellsworth and Bangor, the half-day workshop provided a framework for developing an H1N1 plan. With about 75 part-time employees who provide home-based care and personal assistance to elderly people, the Marstons said they have a dual obligation to protect both their workers and their frail clients.
“We have clients who absolutely cannot be without someone to take care of them,” Paul Marston said. “And we have employees who want to work even if they’re sick. We can’t allow that.”
“We need to talk with our clients to see what they have for backup plans,” Anne Marston said. “It’s going to take some teamwork to get through this.”
Those who attended the planning workshop at the Spectacular Event Center represented a range of area businesses, including banks, car dealerships, educational institutions, retail outlets, construction companies, health care providers and municipal government.
Michael Aube, president of EMDC, said he has already been asked to plan another H1N1 workshop for businesses in the Bangor area and is exploring the possibility of offering similar programs in surrounding communities.