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How companies are fighting H1N1

Globe and Mail Update

The H1N1 is hitting Canadian workplaces as more people call in sick and employers beef up contingency plans.

Most larger employers, such as the big banks, are well prepared, particularly those that weathered the SARS outbreak in 2003.

It's a different story for smaller businesses with more limited resources, though.

Almost half of small business owners are unfamiliar with business continuity planning, and 80 per cent say preparing for potential disruptions is low on their to-do lists, a American Express survey showed last week.

Employees, too, are grappling with whether to call in sick – and potentially miss a week's pay – or show up for work, to the ire of their co-workers.

In Quebec, almost a quarter of employees say they would still show up for work even if they had the H1N1 flu virus, a poll commissioned by the Ordre des conseillers en resources humaines found this month.

Here's a temperature reading on what some employers in some sectors are doing, and what advisers are saying:.

Transport

Like many other large companies, Via Rail, which employs 3,000 people across the country, has shifted into high gear. Via's pandemic working group, which used to gather infrequently, now meets every 15 days to discuss the status of the swine flu outbreak, said spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutsky.

The company has run tests to simulate how it would run if 10 per cent, 20 per cent or 30 per cent of its work force is missing. If absenteeism grows beyond 30 per cent, train service would be interrupted, it estimates.

Should the outbreak affect Toronto train lines, it plans to bring in workers from Vancouver to pitch in.

Banks

Bank of Nova Scotia has several tools to educate employees about swine flu. Like many large employers, its central intranet site gives employees contact information and links to public health agency websites. It sends out regular all-staff e-mails on the issue. And it's distributing a “flu flyer” – a brochure for staff with information on the flu.

Most big banks have a chief medical officer on staff to advise on pandemics and other health issues.

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada, which oversees the banks, is asking institutions to review and update their business continuity plans.

Consultancies

Swine flu is causing many companies to bolster their telecommunication capabilities.

Workers at Toronto communications consulting firm Cohn & Wolfe are now equipped with laptops and BlackBerrys, so they can work from home. “It's accelerated plans for portable communication,” said Dave Gordon, executive vice president.

It has tested its technology to ensure that all of its 35 employees can now work offsite if need be.

The other change around the office? “A lot of people are saying ‘you know, the storeroom is out of Kleenex and Purell.' They notice that now and they wouldn't have before. And the employer wouldn't have been expected to stock it.”

Insurers

The insurance industry is monitoring developments “very closely” and is in contact with governments and public health agencies, says Wendy Hope, spokeswoman for Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.

This week, the association added an H1N1 section to its website, which has links and will provide industry-specific information as it becomes available.

What lawyers say

Employment lawyers are being swamped with calls.

The main questions are whether an employer should pay a worker off sick for a week; how employers can encourage staff to stay home if sick; how to tell whether someone's legitimately ill, and how to set up a business so people can work remotely, says Janice Rubin, an employment lawyer at Toronto-based Rubin Thomlinson LLP.

Another potential worry is if an employee spreads rumours about the health status of a co-worker. “If there are rumours swirling around about you being sick and you infecting people, and it becomes impossible for you to come to work, that is theoretically a case of discrimination under the human rights code,” she cautions.

What doctors say

Employers: skip the doctor's note. That's the recent message from the Ontario Medical Association.

Doctors are asking employers to stop asking for a sick note from a physician as medical caseloads rise.

Rather, they should trust their employees. And employees shouldn't take advantage of this year's flu season to skip off work, it says.

“In order to help reduce the transmission of H1N1 and other illnesses, Ontario's doctors believe it is wise for patients to stay home when they have flu-like symptoms,” said Dr. Suzanne Strasberg, president of the association.

“Employers need to recognize that by requiring a sick note, they are encouraging those who are experiencing their worst symptoms and are most infectious to go out, when they should just be home in bed.”

With files from reporter Tara Perkins

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