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Will swine flu make your company sick?

If everyone at your small company started coughing tomorrow you might suspect swine flu. But would you send your workers home? Could you send them home?

After reporting earlier this week that one of its employees was diagnosed with swine flu, Ernst & Young told its workers they could work from home. Typically, large firms like Ernst & Young have the technological resources and size to make such an offer.

The accounting giant later said it could not confirm the earlier diagnosis, but with the number of swine flu cases growing each day this is an issue you should think about carefully. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has told American workers to stay home if they feel sick. If they were to take her advice, what would that mean for your business?

Many small firms don't have a formal sick leave policy.

According to a poll taken last year by the Small Business Digest:

--Only 53% of respondents said they had a written policy that limited sick days (the average was 2.3 days per year.)
--41% said they had no such policy, but are flexible.
--8% said that non-exempt employees were docked for sick days.

Publisher Don Mazzella said his team made phone calls to a host of small firms this week and found that "some were prepared to relax policies for fear of getting more workers sick." But not everyone is worried about a possible outbreak, or how to handle it.

"If anyone were to report feeling sick, I know they'd be encouraged to stay home, especially since most employees here have a very physically demanding job," said Stephen Coady, a spokesman for the Gentle Giant Moving Company that has 200 workers.

Gentle Giant, he added, "tries to balance sick, vacation [and] personal time policies to benefit employees as much as possible, so god forbid we were hit with an epidemic here. I feel confident there would be some flexibility with policies so hourly people could skip working without worrying about their income too much."

Wow, they really are gentle giants!

If this course of action isn't an option for you, you may want to start thinking about how you'd handle something like this just in case.

If remote work is an option, here are some tips from Christine Durst, CEO of Staffcentrix:

--Small firms should focus on having remote collaboration tools in place and make sure that all workers are familiar with how they are used.
--There are a variety of online collaboration tools that will fit every budget and teams of every size.
--Phones can be forwarded in the event that no staff will be left on-site.
--Hardcopy files should be divided, according to who needs them the most, and shared via fax if necessary.

Also, here are some legal issues to keep in mind from employment attorney John Robinson with Fowler White Boggs:

--The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides unpaid leave to employees for serious medical conditions (for employees and their immediate family members). Employees get 90 days of leave. The employer must have 50 employees for FMLA to apply. Employee must work a year to become eligible for leave.
--Check local ordinances and state employment laws, which may provide leave rights beyond FMLA.
--Require employees to provide notes from medical professionals for any non-routine, contagious, or work limitations on sick leave or return to work.
--Institute and apply a "no call, no show" policy for disciplining employees who fail to call in sick. If they fail to call when they stay at home sick, they are disciplined.
--Consider a personal time off policy, where employees have a set number of days in a "leave bank." Employees can take time off for sick days, appointments, family events and leave.
--Institute and publicize sick leave and reporting.

Have you come up with a plan yet? How have you dealt with employee sick time before, especially if many workers were ill at the same time? Share your thoughts below.