By Del Jones, USA TODAY
In Asia, where the bird flu threat is real and people have more to
fear than in the USA, companies have taken to putting out bowls of bleach,
ammonia or chlorine to make the office smell clean and put employees at
Such measures seem borderline comical to U.S. companies where
high-level teams have started to brainstorm about what they would do if bird
flu mutates into a global nightmare and begins to spread from person to
person. The problem is, if a pandemic breaks out, the majority of solutions
U.S. companies have come up with will seem almost as cosmetic as the
aromatherapy in Bangkok.
Just 15% of large U.S. companies have any bird-flu plan, according to
a survey in March by human resources consultant Watson Wyatt
Worldwide. That's starting to change:
.Corning started its corporate pandemic preparedness team in mid-2005.
.Best Buy has a bird flu team under orders to report to company
leadership by October.
.Mutual of Omaha's plan includes flexible hours to reduce building
population. It just launched Germ Buster, CEO Dan Neary says,
an employee education campaign focused on hygiene.
One of the more extreme examples is biotechnology company Biogen Idec,
which says it formed a bird-flu team in September that meets every two
weeks. Recommendations include a "3-foot rule" that prohibits
handshaking, head-count restrictions on elevators, stations with
alcohol-based hand-cleaning gel, and more frequent cleaning of
"Obviously, we view this as a work in progress," says Jose Juves, one
of 11 on the Biogen avian-flu steering committee.
The real issue is absenteeism, which the World Health Organization
(WHO) predicts could climb above 40% and last for weeks. Boeing is
trying to determine if it can operate with 30% of its 160,000
"We usually don't share specifics, because it's a security issue,"
says Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy. "Can you plan for everything?
Absolutely not. We're going to be prepared the best we can. Shame on
us if we don't at least think about it ahead of time."
Emcor Group, a commercial-building management company, feels secure in
that only 100 of its 27,000 employees work at corporate headquarters
in Norwalk, Conn. Likewise, Xerox has only 350 of its 30,000
U.S. employees working at Stamford, Conn., headquarters, and even the
8,000 employees concentrated in Rochester, N.Y., are scattered among
several buildings. Telecommuting is an option, says Patricia Calkins,
Xerox vice president of environment, health and safety. But she did
not readily know what percentage of employees have company-issued
laptops with secure IDs that would let them remotely access the Xerox
More than 200 companies paid $1,800 each in registration fees to send
a representative to a two-day conference on business planning for bird
flu in December sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for
Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Minnesota Chamber of
Those representatives come back reciting the wonders of sterilized
doorknobs, brown-bag lunches, windows open to the fresh air, larger
meeting rooms and an employee population educated enough to refuse to
shake hands or crowd onto elevators. They also speak of telecommuting,
videoconferencing, flexible hours and relying on e-mail and
BlackBerrys for conversations across the room, all examples of what is
known as "social distancing" among the growing ranks versed in
Few absolute solutions
But when pressed, companies say there is little they will be able to
do if H5N1 avian flu morphs into a highly contagious and deadly virus
like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. It killed about 50 million
people, more than 500,000 in the USA. But this time, the flu would
leap across oceans in hours to be transmitted by people who won't feel
symptoms for up to four days.
The WHO calls this worst-case scenario Phase 6. Consumers and
employees alike would hunker down at home, costing the global economy
$1 trillion, the World Bank estimates. Health and Human Services
Secretary Michael Leavitt says 92 million Americans could get sick.
The good news is that Phase 6 is far from certain. So far, there have
been 205 confirmed cases of bird flu in humans who contracted the flu
because they lived among and came in contact with diseased birds,
mostly in Asia. The latest came Thursday when it spread to an
8-year-old girl in China. But if the virus one day begins to spread
from human to human and the mortality rate is anywhere near 50%, it's
easy to imagine unprecedented consumer fear and employees who value
their lives more than their jobs. That could cripple the global
economy and make corporate doorknob cleaning and catchphrases such as
social distancing seem absurdly shallow.
Bird flu might never morph into human-to-human transmission, or if it
does, it could be a less deadly strain that can be controlled like the
2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In that
case, articles such as this one were destined to be thrown onto the
bonfire of whipped-up scares. Remember Y2K hysteria? Trade association
websites are rife with warnings about how the media can be expected to
overreact if there is a pandemic, which could lead to irrational
"Most clients we're working with are still relatively confident that
life will go on," says Bob Wesselkamper, practice director of
international consulting for Watson Wyatt.
Planning for the worst
But disaster planning by definition requires planning for the worst.
Consultants that are positioning themselves for bird flu mania,
including Deloitte & Touche and Mercer Human Resource, advise
companies to use their imaginations. It's easy to imagine corporate
buildings as ghost towns; it's just not easy to imagine how to avoid
it. Would a pool of retirees be of any help when older people would be
the most vulnerable to fatalities? There isn't much a company can do
to prepare, says Fred Crosetto, CEO of Ammex, maker of the N95 face
masks that protect people from the spread of the virus.
Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits CEO Ken Keymer says a 1918-like pandemic is
highly unlikely, and his company is focused more on its contingency plans
for Phases 1 to 5. But what if the worst becomes reality? Keymer pauses on
the phone. "I'm not even sure. That scenario would shut down all commerce,"
he says. He starts to envision a business opportunity for home food delivery
as people cocoon. But he all but dismisses it as too labor-intensive and
impossible if Popeyes employees are home sick, home because they are afraid
to get sick or home with their children because schools are shut down. Some
employees would die. Others would be devastated with grief.
Sales of the N95 mask made by Ammex are up 500% in a year to 5 million
a month, and the company will soon double its capacity. Ammex
employees are among the best-informed about bird flu. Even so,
Crosetto says, his company could suffer 40% absenteeism. It would be
the same for most companies and would cripple just-in-time supply
chains, causing shortages, and could lead to Hurricane Katrina-like
panic and looting.
Some companies can likely operate with nearly half their employees
gone. Most could operate for a short time by doing the 20%
most-critical activities, says Robert Dyson, a business continuity
specialist at management consulting firm Accenture. But it can't be
pulled off without planning, he says.
Even those that plan must worry about their suppliers. "Our business
is not an isolated entity," says Biogen's Juves. "Involving people
from outside the company will be essential if avian flu risk
Emcor manages 1 billion square feet of office and industrial space for
clients including British Airways, JPMorgan Chase and the U.S. State
Department. Most companies are thinking about how to alleviate fears
enough to get employees to come to work. But Emcor CEO Frank MacInnis
says that in a worst-case scenario, companies will be trying to keep
non-critical employees out of buildings so that essential workers can
work safely and spread out one or two to a floor. Even then,
ventilation systems will need to be adjusted to bring in outside air
through ultraviolet filtration, MacInnis says.
Long absences would hurt
Most companies could survive absenteeism if it doesn't last long. But
it could drag on. Xerox says it has been advised by government
officials to plan for 30% to 50% absenteeism for up to six weeks. "If
governments tell us to shut down, we'll do that," Calkins says.
The pandemic could even last in waves up to 18 months as it comes to a
city, leaves for a while, then returns. Hit first and hard would be
airlines, despite assurances by the Air Transport Association that
fliers could be safer on a plane than in an enclosed room because of
better air circulation and filtration. The Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention will soon have quarantine rooms set up at 25 airports
staffed by 100 employees.
Next will be shopping malls, movie theaters, sports arenas, casinos,
restaurants and labor-intensive industries, which might explain why
AMC and Regal theaters, shopping mall operator Macerich, turkey
processor Hormel Foods and Air Japan were among the companies that
"At this time, we won't be sharing any details of our plans," says
Wal-Mart's Sharon Weber. "Needless to say, whatever happens, the
safety and well-being of our customers and associates will be at the
top of our priority list."
Popeyes has more reason than most to stay silent, which is why CEO
Keymer says it's better to talk. Chicken sales have plummeted in Asia
and dropped off in Europe even though the flu can't be spread through
cooked poultry. The lesson learned is to aggressively educate
consumers and employees to ease fears, Keymer says.
Another lesson is to sell something other than chicken. Popeyes won't
be introducing hamburgers or lasagna, Keymer says, but it will promote
the seafood it already has on the menu if the public avoids anything
MacInnis, 58, says he's old enough to remember when swimming pools
were closed down during the polio scare. Few companies have come to
grips with the possibilities of avian flu, he says.
The starting gun will be with the first person-to-person fatality
followed by wall-to-wall news reports and Google map mash-ups tracking
the flu's spread from ZIP code to ZIP code. Or sooner.
"Just imagine the situation that is going to break loose when the
first duck, swan or fowl is found floating in some Midwest lake,"
Crosetto says. "If it makes the jump to human-to-human, then it is
going to get crazy."
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