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By Kenadi Silcox
March 2, 2020
Lixia Guo / Money; Getty Images

As the number of patients diagnosed with coronavirus continues to climb, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is encouraging Americans to prepare for a nationwide outbreak.

On social media, the news has prompted speculation that the risk could be exacerbated by American work culture. With no legally guaranteed paid time off, there are major disincentives for U.S. workers to stay home when they’re feeling sick — not to mention those who are worried about getting sick.

For people who work desk jobs, telecommuting is an obvious choice. But asking to do that might feel uncomfortable, or extreme, especially if working from home is a practice your boss hasn’t championed in the past.

Still, deciding whether or not to stay home in the face of a national health emergency shouldn’t be up to someone whose job is at risk. Which is why pandemic policies, or guidelines for how employers will proceed in the face of potentially catastrophic outbreaks of disease, should be a priority for corporate America.

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It’s easy to find templates for these policies — a simple search for “company pandemic response plan” pulls up myriad templates, and a few legitimate policies, but how many companies actually make use of them is anybody’s guess.

The policies that DO exist aren’t terribly complicated, says John Ho, the Chair of OSHA practice at New York-based law firm Cozen O’Connor.

“They’re typically a response plan that lays out the foundation of what a company should consider, depending on the particular situation,” he says.

Usually, that means having a base plan that’s adaptable on the fly, led by a committee of staff members in charge of overseeing responses to outbreaks.

“In a big company, you want to include an HR representative, someone from operations, someone from IT, and representatives from any other essential departments,” Ho says, “In small businesses it could just be an office manager.”

Ho says in the case of coronavirus, employers could decide to adopt flexible scheduling policies on the fly — so people can work from home, and not have to choose between exposing themselves to a potentially deadly virus and losing out on rent money.

His firm is currently working on a series of webinars to help HR teams plan for a potential outbreak at work, and is seeing hundreds of company representatives sign up for them already.

“Having a plan for protecting company resources and figuring out how to return to business as usual takes careful consideration,” Ho says. “It minimizes detrimental impact.”

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