Hand sanitizer

Ray King, locksmith for the state Department of General Services, uses hand sanitizer next to the first-floor elevators at 301 W. Preston St. In preparation for the H1N1 flu, the state has provided hand sanitizers at all state buildings. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna / October 7, 2009)

Tracey Haldeman is not taking any chances with her business being disrupted this flu season. So the president of Baltimore's Pinnacle Communications is providing an attractive incentive for her eight employees to get vaccinated for both the seasonal and H1N1 viruses: an hour of free personal training and a paid day off.

"We're a small firm and all our staff is senior level," said Haldeman. "When we have one person out for an extended period of time, it could impact what we do for clients. It's important for us to keep the work at a high level, so it's important for us to stay healthy."

Growing fears of the H1N1 flu are prompting employers in Maryland and across the country to step up efforts to curb the virus' spread in their workplaces and plan for disruptions as employees call in sick.

Some employers are developing contingency plans for staff shortages and updating sick leave policies, strongly encouraging employees to stay home if feeling ill and even sending home those who come to work with a cough or fever. Baltimore County's Police Department plans to call on school officers to fill gaps and allow some employees to work from home. And the state is allowing workers to telecommute while taking care of sick family members.

Businesses not only expect to deal with a rise in absenteeism, but also with those who show up to work sick, which is known as "presenteeism."

"With the expected pandemic, employers are between a rock and a hard place," said Pamela Wolf, an employment law analyst at CCH Inc., an Illinois provider of tax and business information.

Keeping in mind the likelihood of staff shortages and the need for all available workers, Johns Hopkins medical system has developed backup work schedules and backups of backup schedules. If warranted, plans for travel restrictions could be implemented for Hopkins institutions, while departments have discretion on vacation requests, said Dr. Gabe D. Kelen, director of Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR).

CEPAR, which oversees systemwide planning and response to diasters for the medical system and the university, updated in the spring its pandemic influenza preparedness and response plan to account for the H1N1 virus. The large institutions encompass more than 50,000 people, including all Hopkins hospital employees and university faculty and students.

Not only does the Hopkins medical system have to help protect doctors, nurses and other employees but it also has to prepare for a surge of sick patients that could crowd its hospitals and emergency rooms during an outbreak.

"We want to do our best to protect all our staff and employees and protect the public and patients," Kelen said. "It's a two-way street. We don't want to be a threat to patients and the public, and we don't want them to be a threat to us."

Among the issues the Hopkins system addressed were establishing a fair and uniform H1N1 vaccination policy for its employees, patients, faculty and students, and updating a sick policy that not only encourages sick employees to stay home but sends febrile health care workers home.

"We're not taking any chances. If you have a fever or a sore throat or cough, stay home," Kelen said. "We'll forgive you if it turns out it wasn't H1N1."

With its emphasis on vaccinations, Kelen said he would not be surprised if Johns Hopkins Hospital exceeds last year's work force seasonal flu vaccination rate of 85 percent this year.

While Haldeman from Pinnacle Communications is offering incentives to guard against a possible outbreak at the office, other employers are taking hygienic and preventive measures, such as providing hand sanitizers and offering seasonal flu shots for free or at the work site. Baltimore money manager T. Rowe Price, Black & Decker and supermarket chains Giant and Safeway are among several private employers offering seasonal flu shots to their workers.

Likewise, the state has already held 14 seasonal flu shot clinics for its employees in various departments across Maryland.

In addition, the state Department of General Services has placed hand sanitizer dispensers around common areas at 56 buildings the agency manages. So far, the agency has purchased almost 1,600 refill packets containing 800 milliliters each of the alcohol-based sanitizer, said spokesman Dave Humphrey.

DGS, along with the state health department, has launched an awareness campaign to educate employees about practicing good hygiene and getting vaccinated.

To deal with a need for employees to take sick time for themselves or to take care of family members, the state implemented Level 2 of its pandemic flu attendance and leave policy last month. The higher distinction - out of three levels - allows employees to telecommute, follow a more relaxed return to work and access the state's advance sick leave bank.

Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, acting assistant director of the Office of Environmental Health and Food Protection at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said employers should focus on developing practices for prevention and plans for continuity of operations when preparing for spread of the H1N1 flu.