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Firms Urged to Prep for Swine Flu

Swine flu hasn't hit his business yet, but Pedro Alfonso is nervous nonetheless.

"We're running scared," says the president of Dynamic Concepts, an 80-person telecommunications company in Washington, D.C. "If we can't generate revenue because everyone is sick, then we're jeopardizing everyone's livelihood. So we're going to do our fair share of preparedness."

Only one-third of company leaders believe they could sustain business without severe problems if half of their workers were absent for two weeks because of swine flu, according to a national survey released this month by Harvard School of Public Health. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans, hospitalizes more than 200,000 and strips the U.S. economy of more than $10 billion in lost productivity and direct medical expenses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security say that with the flu season starting early and wide (21 states reported last week that the flu was "widespread," according to the CDC), precaution is of utmost importance.

Many of the steps that companies should take, and are taking, are basic. Among them: reminding employees to cover coughs and sneezes, encouraging hand hygiene, encouraging vaccine use once it's available and telling workers to stay home if sick.

"We now have hand sanitizers in our branches and in all of our large office buildings," says John Haley, senior vice president of the risk management group for Regions Bank, which is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala.

Dynamic Concepts is encouraging workers to clean their phones and keyboards and not to use another staff member's equipment unless it has been disinfected.

Other issues are more complicated. For example, employers should decide if workers can telecommute or have flexible work hours, the CDC says. And company sick-leave policies should be reviewed so workers can stay home without fear of job loss.

The CDC also notes that companies need to let workers stay at home if they are ill, have to care for family members, or watch their children if schools close.

"We have plans in place to work with reduced staffing," Haley says of Regions Bank.

Convergys, a Cincinnati-based global relationship management company, says each of its facilities will be cleaned and sanitized if a confirmed flu case is found.

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