As the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated, workplaces must be prepared for the unexpected—and even the catastrophic. It’s a good idea to get a pandemic plan in place before a crisis hits so you can protect your business, educate your workers, and keep your customers and teams safe. 

There’s now more attention—and guidance—than ever on how to prepare for public health emergencies, from the seasonal flu to outbreaks like COVID-19. This guide explains how to start the process, what to include in your pandemic plan, and key considerations during a health crisis. 

How to prepare your business

First, get your business in order by identifying key team members, tools, and information.

Step 1: Appoint a pandemic coordinator or team with defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness and response planning. In the event of a health emergency, who will be in charge of internal communications, gathering safety materials, coordinating with vendors, and so on?

The planning process should include input from union reps, if applicable at your workplace. 

Step 2: Identify essential employees and the other critical inputs you need to maintain your business operations. These can include:

  • Raw materials
  • Suppliers
  • Sub-contractor services or products
  • Other logistics

Document all the personnel and resources that are essential to running your business, and break them out by location and function. 

Step 3: Review your personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements, if applicable. You’ll want to consider both the PPE requirements for the nature of your business (does your team work with hazardous chemicals or equipment?), as well as requirements to support public health in the event of a pandemic.

For example, masks will likely be required as workers return to businesses amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Be sure to figure out supply chain backups for your equipment so you have ready access to required materials.

Step 4: Consider scenarios that are likely to disrupt your business or result in an increase or decrease in demand for your products or services during a pandemic. For example:

  • How would a restriction on mass gatherings affect your business?
  • Does your business provide a product or service that can meet a need during a public emergency?
  • What supply chains are crucial to your business’s survival?
  • What changes in your customers’ daily routines or needs would impact your business?

Step 5: Based on those scenarios, determine the potential impact of a pandemic on your business by assessing the effect of multiple different events on your product lines, production sites, work groups, etc.

As you walk through different scenarios, you can also come up with and document ways you can pivot your business to counteract the impacts to your business.

Step 6: Finally, consider how a pandemic would alter business-related domestic and international travel. In the event of quarantines, border closures, airline slowdowns or shutdowns—what parts of your business might be affected?

How to prepare your team

Next, get some important information from your employees, and put policies in place that will ensure they know what to do in the event of an emergency.

Step 1: If you don’t already collect emergency contact information from your workers, start doing this, and tell workers to update you if their info changes. You may want to incorporate a check for updates into your annual open enrollment process. 

Step 2: Decide how you will handle employee absences during a pandemic due to factors such as personal illness, family member illness, community containment measures and quarantines, school or business closures, and public transportation closures.

Think in advance about a policy that will allow workers to take time away for your workplace while keeping the essential parts of your business going. For example, you can establish policies for flexible work locations (telecommuting) and flexible work hours (staggered shifts). These may kick in only during a pandemic situation or be in place the rest of the time. 

Step 3: Establish policies for employees who have been exposed to a pandemic illness, are suspected to be ill, or get sick at work. Decide whether you will relax standard leave requirements, such as doctors’ notes, during a pandemic situation.

We cover how to handle an employee who has been exposed to COVID-19 in our employer guide. 

Step 4: Think about how you’ll approach employee compensation and sick leave absences unique to a pandemic, including policies on when a previously sick person is no longer infectious and can come back. 

For example, consider whether you want to establish a leave donation policy so that workers with extra accumulated leave time can help colleagues who need more.

Step 5: Lastly, invest in your communications and information technology infrastructures as needed so you’re ready to support employee telecommuting and remote customer access.

What should be in your workplace pandemic preparedness plan

Now that you’ve done the legwork of getting things in place, make sure you document the following things so your plan is ready when you need it.

  1. A brief definition of a pandemic. It’s important to know under what circumstances your pandemic plan should go into effect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a pandemic flu information page that can be adapted for other types of pandemics. 
  2. A list of essential personnel and pandemic response positions. Managers and the team members you’ve identified for key response roles should also be notified of this information.
  3. Your remote work plan. Will employees work from home? Will you close all locations except headquarters? Will only essential personnel be working? Outline your preferred policy here.
  4. Policies on employee compensation, family leave, and sick leave during a pandemic. This section can reference your existing procedures, to the extent applicable, as well as any changes you’d make during a public health emergency.
  5. Your game plan for when employees get sick. List the infection-control measures your team will take during a pandemic, such as sending workers home who are suspected to be sick.
  6. A pandemic business travel policy. This could include policies on restricting travel to affected areas, evacuating employees from affected areas, and guidance for employees returning from affected areas. 
  7. List of resources. This may include a hotline workers can call, community health departments, Employee Assistance Program information, etc.
  8. Contact information. Make sure you have contacts for your pandemic point person or team easily accessible.

How to keep your workers and customers healthy during a pandemic

Safety first

First and foremost, highlight practices that will help your team prevent the spread of illness at work through signs or posters in common areas, team communications, and regular reminders. These best practices can include:

  • Sneeze and cough etiquette
  • Thorough hand-washing instructions
  • Social distancing guidelines
  • A list of symptoms that should result in self-isolation 

You can also include in these guidelines ways to modify team interactions to reduce the risk of spreading disease. For example, perhaps you replace hand-shaking with elbow taps, change up your open seating plan, conduct meetings in open spaces, repurpose shared workstations, or conduct large meetings virtually. Consider both interactions among employees as well as between employees and customers.

FInally, make sure you provide sufficient and accessible cleaning and hygiene supplies, like hand-shop and sanitizer, tissues, PPE, touchless trash cans, and so on, in all your business locations.

Communication is key

It’s important to stay connected during emergencies, so circulate a comms plan to employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers. Let them know exactly where they can expect updates in a consistent and timely way, whether it’s email, a dedicated website, or a number they can call.

Support your team by sourcing timely and accurate pandemic information, like the latest CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), or state guidance. You can also stay on top of the latest information about medical emergency response, like how to get consultations or vaccines. You may also choose to provide information about at-home care of ill employees or family members.

Additionally, keep a pulse on your team’s emotional morale. Anticipate employees’ fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and address them with communications accordingly.

Pro-tip: Make sure that your communications are culturally appropriate and accessible. For example, if a large percentage of your workforce speaks a language other than English, important and helpful materials should be translated.

Keep an eye on compliance

Even during a pandemic, regular state and federal rules relating to sick leave, paid family leave, non-discrimination, minimum wage, overtime, and so forth still apply. In some cases, these laws may even expand or change rapidly in response to a crisis.

You may choose to be more lenient with employees—for example, by providing additional unpaid leave or not requiring doctors’ notes—but you cannot remove or reduce any rights they already have. 

If compliance questions arise in a pandemic situation, you may wish to consult with one or more of the following resources: 

Don’t ‘set it and forget it’

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the work (and value) involved in a pandemic preparedness plan comes from the thinking and planning that goes into it—so take your time and consider this an ongoing process. 

This is not a “check the box” policy you should write once, add to your employee handbook, and forget about. It’s a living, evolving document that should be revisited and revised on a regular basis so it’s ready when you need to call on it.

Even when you’re not in the midst of a pandemic, there are things you can do on an ongoing basis to ensure your business is prepared:

  • Communicate your pandemic preparedness and response plan to employees.
  • Provide regular emergency training and drills.
  • Collaborate with federal, state, and local public health agencies, emergency responders, insurers, and major local healthcare facilities to participate in their planning processes, share your pandemic plans, and understand their capabilities.
  • Ask local or state public health agencies and emergency responders about what products or services your business could contribute to the community.
  • Share best practices with other businesses in your community, chambers of commerce, and associations to improve community response efforts.

Encourage general wellness and preventive care, including annual vaccinations, for employees.

Jennifer Carsen Jennifer Carsen is an enrolled agent and recovering employment lawyer. She creates memorable content for small business owners and HR professionals on various topics, including employment law and benefits compliance.
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