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Swine flu and the workplace


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With a new wave of swine flu (H1N1) predicted to hit by mid-October 2009, the Public Health Agency of Canada in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments have launched a new website at It is a one-stop access to online information and resources about H1N1 flu virus. In addition, the agency has awarded a contract worth $926,600 under the Pandemic Preparedness Response Fund to the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) to develop tools and strategies that small and medium sized businesses can use to take action to ensure they recognize and deal with the challenges brought on by the virus, and develop plans to deal with increased employee absenteeism and disruptions in their operations.

However, there have been many sceptics’ about whether or not it is going to impact our population, and to what degree.  The reality is that across the world it is presently impacting 20-50% of populations, and many deaths are occurring.

Depending on the severity of the flu outbreak, all of us acknowledge that trying to balance various interests will be difficult for businesses, especially when determining how to: prevent transmission among employees; protect people who are at increased risk of influenza related complications from getting infected with influenza; maintain business operations, and minimize adverse effects on our suppliers and customers.

What should you be doing at this point?

  • Create policies and procedures that address workplace illnesses – be clear that if people are sick, they should stay home; tell them how they should request time off
  • Address sanitary practices – because influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing, it is important to take precautions by asking employees to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze. Also purchase containers of hand sanitizer and tissue paper and instruct employees to use them regularly
  • Establish methods of communication “phone/email”
  • Address issues such as potential school closings and parental leave; as well as compassionate care leave to take care of a sick family member
  • Consider the concern – if we really do have a certain percentage of our workforce ill or taking care of family members, what will your business do to have continuity? Outline a plan to address this issue such as remote work locations, working from home arrangements and VPN connections.

The jury is still out on whether the swine flu outbreak will become a widespread pandemic. However, it’s not too soon for employers to start preparing to prevent influenza spread at work and consider what to do if the illness reaches pandemic status.

This pandemic discussion has been going on for quite some time on different blogs and other resources, but several studies and research papers indicate that businesses are still not prepared. First Reference has several HR publications to help you plan for a possible pandemic and answer questions about employer and worker responsibilities, rights, and solutions when dealing with H1N1 influenza in the workplace at

What is your workplace doing, and if nothing why?

Yosie Saint-Cyr

Employment Law Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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8 thoughts on “Swine flu and the workplace
  • Yosie says:

    An Ontario senior provincial health official has stated in the media that the second wave of swine-flu has hit the GTA!

    The flu activity is concentrated primarily in Toronto, Hamilton and London, he said.

    He further stated that “It’s time to get everybody prepared and everybody to deal with it.”

    However, one statement I found very disturbing… Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. David Butler Jones told a media teleconference Wednesday that Canada will shield drug maker GalxoSmithKline from lawsuits in the event of problems with the vaccine, but not health practitioners who make mistakes in giving it.

    Excuse me?!!

  • Susan M says:

    I agree with Gord. We have so many sanitizers and anti-bacterial agents that destroy our natural ability to fight germs. The human body is an amazing thing, and I think we are weakening it by using these products and avoiding germs.
    Vaccines, however are a different story. While I haven’t ever had a flu shot, I think it’s a good idea to encourage employees to get one. The flu shot actually administers the flu to your body and your body naturally learns how to fight it.
    I think it’s better for our bodies to learn to fight the flu, rather than keeping all the germs swept up in a sanitizer napkin, because if we just avoid the flu, it will eventually catch up with us!

  • Gord says:

    It seems the media has been building the hype on the premise of our gulability. We are suckered into thinking this “pandemic” is something new. We are afflicted in the fall every year with clockwork as schools resume and the germs have a hayday. Lets get smart. Enough sanitizers and “good ” germ killers. We’ve created a society of wimps medically speaking. We need to allow some of the bugs live and help our kids fight off the flu naturally. Don’t get suckered in any longer to this media circus of the swine flu. More vaccinations for what?

  • Yosie says:

    I was thinking about the issue of compensation during a pandemic; please think about this:

    Do not forget that all leaves of absence under employment standards (statutory leaves) are unpaid; and that employees do have access to employment insurance EI sickness benefits if they have the proper medical certificate to justify the illness. If there are short-term benefits or LTD for sick employees, they should maybe have access to them during a pandemic (check with your group plan). Workers who contract a pandemic disease due to the nature of their work can file claims with the provincial/territorial WCB. Each claim will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

    Regarding the issue of hourly employees who are asked to stay home during a pandemic… because of illness, or to care for a family member, or for school closure, whether these employees are paid a fixed salary or are on an hourly basis; if paid time-off benefits exist and have been exhausted, employers do not have the choice but to consider the time away from work during a pandemic as absent-without-pay with job protection (if there is no work being performed). The reasonable duty to accommodate even during a pandemic does not require paid leave. The treatment between employees should not be different because of how employees are paid. The law in Canada does not make a difference between employees paid on a fixed salary or an hourly rate. Salaried employees employment contracts require employees to work a standard workweek for that fixed salary. When that work is not being performed because they are asked to stay home because of illness, or to care for a family member that is ill during a pandemic, they should also be put on an unpaid leave of absence with job protection. Note, we are talking about compensation and leaves during pandemic… separate policies from your regular compensation and leaves policies.

    It is suggested that if there is a declared-emergency by the government and the whole workplace is closed due to the pandemic, all employees who would otherwise be working if not for the closing should be paid and should not be required to use accumulated time-off benefits for the duration of the emergency closing up to 15 calendar days. Following the initial 15 calendar days, the designated person in the organization should evaluate the situation and make a determination if this provision is to be continued and if so, for how long.

  • Yosie says:

    The CBC has recently stated that unpublished Canadian data are raising concerns about whether it’s a good idea to get a seasonal flu shot this season. A series of four or five studies from British Columbia and Quebec, looking at around 2,000 people in total, are said to suggest that people who got flu shots last fall were more likely to become infected with swine flu than people who didn’t.

    The Canadian Press has stated that the findings are said to be contributing to the calls from some provinces for a delay or cancellation of this year’s seasonal flu vaccination program.

    They added that sources say that public health officials in Canada are rethinking pandemic and seasonal flu vaccination plans, with issues of timing and vaccine formulation back on the table. Something to think about!

  • Laurie Finlay says:

    We are trying to be proactive about flu prevention in general this year and not putting too much emphasis on H1N1.

    Hourly employees that have used up their paid sick time are the problem. They have bills to pay, and generally are committed to them and their jobs to the point that they will only stay home if very ill. This makes prevention challenging. We have addressed sanitary practices, and have masks available to employees who fall ill at work or are required to fly.

    We are worried about possible school or daycare closings or parents that will be required to care for sick family members that will force our associates to stay at home. We are planning remote work locations for those that operate from home.

    But, as Patricia said, it is difficult to guarantee compensation for those getting H1N1 because I understand doctors will not be testing, and this would send a sick person to the doctor and lab to infect others.

    I think we will leave the door open for special consideration on an individual basis. Principals should be open to special circumstances and associates should know they have options in case of a worst case scenario.

  • Patricia B says:

    It’s good to see businesses are putting in place these items and it’s being taken seriously!

    Our company has done all of what Tamara mentioned, and in addition when free flu clinics become available in our area we will post those as well!

    My only concern is our hourly workers. We’ve suggested in our company flyer that everyones to stay home, but do we think hourly employees will as easily and willingly as salaried ones?! I’ve had this discussion with our Senior Leaders and it’s a battle of you let them know you will compensate, or if you do, many employees will take advantage…

    Any thoughts on solving this issue?


  • Tamara Vurdela says:

    Just put together our corporate plan. Most items obvious, here is a list:
    – distributing small kits to all employees which contain: purse-sized sanitizers, flyer on how to determine if you have the flu or a cold

    – also posting office-wide, and on corporate employee intranet the flyer as well as information on proper coughing/sneezing techniques, urging to stay home if sick

    – installing sanitizers in all common areas (lunchrooms, washrooms and main entrances)

    – supplying tissues in all common areas

    – company funded flu innoculation program (doesn’t necessarily address the swine flu, but if employees catch regular flu, probably more susceptible to swine flu)

    Would love to hear from others if they are doing anything different.