Vital Businesses Prepare for Flu Pandemic

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One goal of the White House's flu plan is to help businesses that provide necessities such as food, power and cash stay up and running during a pandemic. But business experts say that keeping the supply lines open could be a major challenge.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

As we just heard, businesses are being encouraged to begin planning for how to keep operating during the flu pandemic. Several recent surveys have shown that many companies are just starting to think about the problem. And experts predict that keeping essential businesses running will be a major challenge.

NPR's David Malakoff reports.

DAVID MALAKOFF reporting:

(Soundbite of truck engine)

In the electricity business, Jay Fefalucas is what's known as a trouble man. When there's trouble with the power lines around Washington, DC, he hops in his repair truck and heads to the scene.

Mr. JAY FEFALUCAS: You could say we're the ambulance of the electrical system. You get a lot of calls from customers concerned about frayed wires, no currents, partial currents. If we can make a permanent repair, we make a permanent repair. If not, we determine any other, you know, information that might need to be relayed to get repairs done as quick as possible.

MALAKOFF: Lucas says the power's usually back on in just hours. But his bosses at Pepco Holdings, the power company that serves nearly two million people along the east coast, worry that a pandemic could derail even the simplest repairs.

That's because experts say companies could lose a third or more of their workers at the height of an outbreak, which could last for months. Many workers would have to stay home to take care of kids if schools closed. Other workers would get sick themselves, and some could die.

To minimize problems, some companies are already making plans for employees to work from home. Mike Maxwell, a Pepco executive, says that's not an option for a utility repair crew.

Mr. MIKE MAXWELL (Vice President, Emergency Preparedness, Pepco Holdings): A lineman can't work from home. I mean, if you're going to talk about a wire on a pole, he's got to get to that location and put that wire back up on the pole. He can't work from home doing that.

MALAKOFF: Luckily, Maxwell says Pepco already knows how it might operate if it suddenly lost a big chunk of its workforce. That's because it's a unionized company, and unions can go on strike. So Pepco and other union shops are taking some pages from their strike contingency plans as they write new ones for the bird flu.

At Pepco, Mike Maxwell says it means office managers may find themselves back on a truck.

Mr. MAXWELL: We have people that, by day they're an accountant, but by night they're an additional customer service rep or they're also working in logistics.

MALAKOFF: To test its flu plan, Pepco will hold a drill this summer. And the company is also stocking up on the masks and gloves it may need to keep workers healthy.

The food industry is also thinking ahead. Grocery store owners say that if a pandemic arrives, they expect people to start avoiding crowded places, where the flu virus could spread easily.

Mr. TIM HAMMONDS (President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute): And that means they're going to turn to food at home through their supermarkets. So supermarkets have to be ready for this well in advance.

MALAKOFF: Tim Hammonds is head of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents the owners of more than 20,000 grocery stores. He says his members are making plans to stock up their shelves at the first sign of pandemic and to change work practices to protect both employees and customers.

Mr. HAMMONDS: For example, you probably would shift your stocking crews to the night. That would minimize any contact with shoppers. You would begin to put in place plans for people to be able to order products over the phone or the Internet and pick them up at the store, perhaps without even having to come in.

MALAKOFF: Other companies, such as banks and phone companies, are also counting on the Internet and call centers to help them keep operating during a pandemic. But Pat McConnell, a consultant in Australia who works with multinational firms, says the strategy has some limitations.

One is that many call centers, both in the U.S. and overseas, tend to be staffed by young women who have children at home.

Mr. PAT MCCONNELL (Pandemic Consultant, Australia): So that means that if you call up your call center there will be less people to answer your calls. So you've got a double whammy whereby there are more people are calling the call center and less people to take the calls. That's immediately a problem.

MALAKOFF: And McConnell says it's not just call centers that will be hit hard. Losing up to a third of the workforce, or more at the height of a pandemic, will disrupt all kinds of business transactions we've come to take for granted.

David Malakoff, NPR News.

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