St. Louis businesses prepare for swine flu

St. Louis, MO –

The check-out lines at a Schnucks grocery store in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue are staffed with cashiers and moving smoothly on a sunny summer afternoon. However, the lines could be moving slower this fall if health officials' concerns for a severe swine flu outbreak are realized and many workers call in sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently urged businesses to plan for what they will do if large numbers of employees can't make it to work.

Schnucks' Food Safety Director Dianna Pasley said the chain began planning for a pandemic several years ago when Avian flu was a concern. She said if shortages occur, officials will transfer healthy employees between stores.

"If one particular store is hit, but we have a really close store in that region, it's not hard to move associates back and forth and I think we have enough flexibility within our groups to be able to cover those issues," Pasley said.

Health officials said this could be a bad flu season because the new swine flu strain has remained active throughout summer, something they don't normally see. They also said more people will get the virus simply because many haven't developed immunity yet, and vaccines for swine flu may not be available until mid-October or later.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Policy Director Travis Sullivan said companies should do more than offer the standard hand washing advice. He said they should send sick workers home, let healthy workers care for relatives, and give those without sick days additional time off.

"As we look to protecting your workforce, ensure that we're not creating positive incentives or negative incentives for sick people to come into work. Because in doing so, we're potentially infecting an entire workforce, and not only is that bad that bad from a human perspective, that's bad for business," Sullivan said.

Officials also recommended employees meet by teleconference and sit at least six feet apart to avoid spreading germs.

Electric and gas utility AmerenUE began taking steps to keep swine flu from spreading among its 4,000 St. Louis area employees in April. Executives asked workers who had traveled to Mexico to stay home for a week, cancelled large meetings and asked visitors to come back later if they had been ill.

Ameren's Services Center Vice President Charles Bremer said he expects similar policies for the fall. He said planning for long-term absences will require a change in the way businesses think.

"You can make up a lot of things in just not doing something for a couple of days or working people over time for a few days but if it's going to be over a protracted period of time, you need to think about things a little differently," Bremer said.

Local non-profit organization Pandemic Prep is recommending St. Louis businesses plan for a worst-case scenario this fall. The group of university, business and government leaders meets regularly to plan for pandemics.

Pandemic Prep's Executive Director Harlan Dolgin said businesses should prepare for a 30 to 40 percent absentee rate over six to eight weeks.

"No one honestly knows how severe it is going to be this winter. Everyone is just guessing. My fear is that if you aren't prepared, if you think that it's just not going to be that big of a deal, and it is a big deal then you're just going to be hit unprepared and possibly, if you're a business owner, your business could go under," Dolgin said.

Dolgin said businesses range in their level of preparedness, but most are in fairly good shape.

Companies like Anheuser-Busch and Enterprise Rent-A-Car say they're monitoring the virus' progress and are following health department recommendations. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer says it has a global pandemic plan in place and is in the process of developing a local one.

Ultimately, Dolgin says keeping a swine flu outbreak at bay will come down to how well employers deal with sick workers and encourage good hygiene.

Click here for more information about how businesses can prepare for flu season.

Click here for more information about Pandemic Prep.