With the winter season fast approaching, run-of-the-mill employee health issues such as the seasonal flu and the common cold are giving way to a new threat in the workplace - H1N1. In fact, President Obama has just declared H1N1 a national emergency.
The public is learning more about this flu pandemic as friends, family members and co-workers are stricken with the virus. A week or so ago, 12 players on the Cleveland Browns football team were sent home from practice when each began exhibiting flu-like symptoms, possibly from the H1N1 virus. Other workplaces are being affected and infected. H1N1 is powerful and enduring, and is spreading quickly. It is believed that six million Americans have already been infected, and many millions more are expected to get infected this season. Approximately 1,300 Americans reportedly have died from the virus. While the vaccines are getting ready for distribution, they are slow to hit the shelves.
H1N1 presents unique and unprecedented challenges in the workplace as businesses deal with employees or their family members who are infected, try to address employee concerns about infected co-workers and the spread of the virus, while simultaneously juggling issues such as increased requests for time off, protecting healthy employees, maintaining business continuity and complying with various employment-related laws.
Undoubtedly, H1N1 presents unique and unprecedented challenges in the workplace as businesses deal with employees or their family members who are infected, try to address employee concerns about infected co-workers and the spread of the virus, while simultaneously juggling issues such as increased requests for time off, protecting healthy employees, maintaining business continuity and complying with various employment-related laws. What is H1N1? It is a novel strain of the Influenza A/H1N1 Virus, also known as "Swine Flu." This flu strain first appeared in the United States in March 2009 and now the virus has hit all 50 states. H1N1 is passed through the droplets of sneezes and coughs and by touching surfaces infected by people with the flu. Pennsylvania Department of Health and other public health agencies recommend a variety of common sense preventive measures to protect against the virulent spread of H1N1.
- use a tissue to cover any coughs or sneezes, or cough or sneeze into your sleeve, not your hand
- keep hands away from your face
- wash hands with soap as frequently as possible and especially before eating
- routinely wipe down and clean frequently-used surfaces, such as countertops, keyboards and door handles
- stay at home for at least 24 hours until after flu symptoms are gone
The workplace (like schools) - where people gather, interact and spread germs - serves as the epicenter of H1N1 issues. Businesses face many challenges as they try to address H1N1 concerns in the workplace. How can business minimize the risk of the virus spreading throughout the workplace? How should employers prepare for increased absenteeism? Do medical and public health issues conflict? How can businesses successfully navigate through both state and federal laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and federal privacy laws, and sick time and absence policies?
To protect their employees and others in the workplace, as well as to maintain business operations, employers should consider the following:
- encourage employees to wash hands frequently and to sneeze into their sleeves
- provide hand sanitizers throughout the workplace so that employees can regularly disinfect their hands throughout the workday
- provide flexible time-off and leave options to allow sick employees to recuperate fully
- advise sick employees to remain home to avoid spreading illness to others in the office
- advise sick employees to go home when they begin presenting symptoms in the office
- encourage employees to be vigilant about their own health and to be on the lookout for common symptoms associated with H1N1
- appropriately encourage employees to get vaccinated for H1N1
- implement flexible options to allow employees to, when appropriate, work from home or take advantage of other remote work options
- respond to employee requests for time off to deal with H1N1 or to assist in caring for a spouse or child dealing with H1N1
- accommodate employees who are dealing with H1N1 or assisting in caring for a spouse or child dealing with H1N1
- appropriately address employee concerns about formerly sick employees returning to work
This is just a brief overview of what your business needs to know regarding the H1N1 virus. For more details and to ensure your business is ready, please review the handouts from the recent “PREPARING FOR H1N1: What Your Business Needs to Know” seminar hosted by Stradley Ronon’s Employment and Labor Practice Group together with the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Stradley Ronon’s Employment and Labor Practice Group is available to assist employers in creating and implementing appropriate pandemic and employee health policies, reviewing applicable laws governing such matters, and responding to a variety of issues under both state and federal law that may arise in dealing with the H1N1 virus.
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