Cover Story: Bracing for H1N1 pandemic

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - We're On Your Side tackling your office swine flu questions.  Can your boss send you home if you're sick?  And can your boss force you to get the H-1-N-1 vaccine?

Health officials say the H-1-N-1 vaccine is expected in our area any day now.

But in the meantime, businesses are seeing large numbers of workers out sick with the H1N1 flu virus.

Surprisingly though, PrimeTime found most companies in our area don't have a plan in place to deal with the pandemic.

As if the recession weren't bad enough.. the latest bugaboo in the American workplace?  The swine flu.

And for businesses heavy into manpower.. like Patrick Collins' company.. operator of several dry cleaning stores and a valet dry cleaning service in Charlotte.. losing workers to illness could cripple his company.

"We have about 20 people that work here," says Collins "so if you have one or two out that's 10-percent of our workforce. It's kinda hard to make that up."

Walk into any workplace.. into any company.. anywhere.. and you can't help but notice things have changed.

In recent weeks.. what's become standard issue.. even in our own newsroom.. hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.

While companies have started stockpiling.. most companies don't know what they do if workers start calling in sick en mass.

"Are most companies prepared for this? No. I would say not."

Cathy Graham with the Charlotte-based non-profit The Employers Association which provides human resources and training services to almost a-thousand companies large and small says a survey of their members which will be out tomorrow found 6-out-of-10 area companies don't have a formal policy to address pandemic planning and the H1N1 virus.

"There's a certain level of panic in the workforce right now. I don't think there should be."

Employers want to know things like-- can I force workers to get a flu shot? The answer is no.

And they want to know if employees show up to work sick.. can I send them home? Yes.

Some employers are also worried that people will come to work sick for fear of being laid off.

Health and business experts say companies need to communicate to their work force and think now about what they'll do.. if as many as 50-percent of Americans become ill.

"It is just now starting to happen," says Graham.  "It's fall now and we have more cases of it in Charlotte. And so I think it's becoming a reality."

Back at Collins Cleaners.. in addition to encouraging healthy practices-- Patrick Collins has cross trained his employees to do each others jobs.

And though he may want to hire extra help - just in case.. it's not really an option.

"You can't overstaff. If you overstaff with three or four people and then something happens to cover that you have the people to cover it but you went bankrupt or broke before that."

Seasonal flu typically doesn't hit until next month.. and then peaks in January and February.

But already health care workers here in North Carolina say they've already seen more cases of flu in September than they've seen in November and December in previous years.

If you'd like to know more about swine flu protection in the workplace, The Employers Association is hosting a seminar on Thursday, October 29, 2009.

For more information:  Call (704) 522-8011 or visit