February 01, 2020
Indeed.com asked staff at its Dublin, Singapore and Sydney offices to work from home on Monday after one of its Singapore-based employees was potentially exposed to the deadly new coronavirus through family members. That worker was given the all-clear the following day and the global recruitment company announced yesterday that all employees would be returning to their offices.
The precautionary measure deployed by Indeed, which was sparked by concern that staff members who had visited the Singapore office had also recently visited the Dublin and Sydney offices, underscores the need for other employers based in Ireland to plan ahead in case an employee should be exposed to, or contract, the virus.
Some 65 people in Ireland have been tested to date for the respiratory virus, but none have been given a positive diagnosis for the infection, which is now officially called Covid-19 by the WHO. The chief medical officer at the Department of Health has said systems are responding well to identifying any possible Covid-19 threat in Ireland and that the Health Service Executive has the capacity to "deal with the volume that might be expected”.
There may not yet be any confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Ireland, but the outbreak in China is already having an impact on Irish businesses, especially those with suppliers based there. The supply chain issues are particularly acute for businesses that source products from Hubei province and its capital city Wuhan, where the outbreak is thought to have originated. With the death toll in mainland China standing at 1,483, other Irish organisations have banned travel to Hubei, the rest of China, and dozens of other countries with confirmed cases of the coronavirus. An Post, meanwhile, has suspended all post between Ireland and China after many airlines decided to stop flying to and from the country.
The world’s experience of the SARS pandemic, as well as the swine flu and avian flu outbreaks, demonstrate that the impact of a health emergency on businesses can be significant and that the spread and impact of a virus or a similar health threat can evolve rapidly. While there is a risk that cases of the latest coronavirus will be identified in Ireland, employers should follow calm, measured approaches, yet prepare for the worst-case scenario.
What can employers do?
The most important immediate response from employers should be to identify the risks to their organisations and to plan on how they will manage the impact on their operations and their workers.
Depending on the size of the organisation, an employer should designate one person to monitor developments on the risks posed by the outbreak and to advise the business’s owner and/or senior management on those developments. The same person could be also be the main point of contact if employees have questions or concerns about the coronavirus and could be in charge of any communications to employees. However, it is vital that the person assigned that role uses measured tones in any such communications to avoid spreading fear or panic.
Organisations should seek out official sources of the most recent medical and travel advice and circulate any relevant measures to employees. The websites of the Department of Health and the WHO are a useful source of up-to-date and comprehensive advice. Organisations can monitor the Department of Foreign Affairs’ website for travel updates and affected destinations and then carry out risk assessments for any employees who are located in regions with the virus or are due to travel to those regions for work.
If the organisation does not already have some form of contingency plan in place to deal with major health threats, it might be prudent to start putting one together now. Even if those plans are not used during the current epidemic, they may prove useful in many other scenarios.
If a business employs staff who regularly travel internationally, they should assess whether these employees have worked in a location affected by the virus over the previous three months. In addition, employees currently working on international assignments in such locations should be closely monitored before and after their return to Ireland.
An employer should also determine whether any employees have scheduled international trips to any affected locations and whether such travel should be cancelled, with meetings held via Skype or other platforms instead. If the trips are critical to the operations of a business, appropriate medical and travel insurance should be in place.
If employees have been exposed to the virus in any way, ensure flexible working arrangements, including the remote working plan implemented by Indeed, can come into effect immediately. Employers should also examine what leave arrangements they could have in place for employees affected by the virus, especially if they have been subjected to an isolation directive by a government agency or medical practitioner.