It's a scenario apparently too scary for disaster-weary Americans to contemplate: As many as 200 million infected people in the U.S.; economic losses ranging from...

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It’s a scenario apparently too scary for disaster-weary Americans to contemplate: As many as 200 million infected people in the U.S.; economic losses ranging from $71 billion to $166 billion; a death toll as high as 100,000; entire cities quarantined, emergency rooms overloaded and mass absenteeism from work.

Since the emergence of a deadly strain of bird flu in Asia more than two years ago, public health officials have been on high alert, warning that a global pandemic is not a matter of if, but when. So far, the message is gaining traction slowly, if at all, among the region’s employers.

Mindful of the alarm sounded over similarly hypothetical threats, such as SARS and Y2K, companies — like many Americans — have so far been hesitant to believe the doomsday predictions.

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“It seems like more rhetoric than substance,” said Jim Sinegal, president and chief executive of Costco Wholesale. “I’m a merchant, not a scientist. If the situation changes, we’ll deal with it. But right now, I’m not too concerned.”

Public-health officials, though, say they’re not crying wolf, and they warn that complacency brings huge risk.

“It’s a big issue,” said Allene Mares, who, as a regional health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, is trying to help employers prepare. “It’s critical that companies start planning for contingencies now.”

Preparing for a pandemic


Steps businesses can take now

Educate work force about pandemic flu and steps company is taking to protect their safety.

Check existing contingency plans for application to a flu pandemic.

Identify company’s essential functions, and individuals who perform them, in case of a 25 to 30 percent absentee rate.

Plan for interruptions of public services such as utilities, sanitation and food supply.

Maintain healthy workplace. Promote proper hygiene and promote hand washing.

Update sick and medical-leave policies. Concerns about lost wages is the largest deterrent to self-quarantine.

Communicate with employees about importance of staying home when sick.

Expand online options for customers and business partners, and enable employees to work from home.

Source: Public Health — Seattle & King County

Since 2003, a strain of influenza originating in birds, known as H5N1, has infected more than 130 people and has claimed the lives of at least 68 people in five Asian countries, including two in China.

Although no known cases of human-to-human transmission have been detected, scientists worry the virus could mutate into a form that could be passed between people, becoming a pandemic as it spreads around the globe rapidly.

If that were to happen, the Seattle area could be severely stricken because it is a gateway to Asia, health officials say.

In King County alone, during the first six weeks of such a pandemic, as many as 1.2 million people could be infected. Up to 57,000 could require hospitalization, and nearly 3,000 could die, the health department estimates.

Mares has been working with 30 of the county’s biggest employers to prepare them for dealing with an infected work force and a predicted 30 percent absentee rate.

Sessions with employers

Coaching sessions have focused on educating employees about health risks, keeping businesses running during a pandemic, and adjusting sick leave and other human-resource policies to make sure ill workers stay home.

The most vulnerable are companies such as Microsoft and Boeing that have workers, facilities and suppliers scattered around the globe, say health officials.

Not surprisingly, they’re also the best prepared.

During the outbreak of SARS, a highly contagious respiratory illness that killed least 774 people worldwide in 2003, Microsoft strongly discouraged its employees from traveling to Asia, and required employees returning from the continent to work from home for two weeks.

Microsoft has created a task force to improve disaster planning and look for ways to keep the company working during a flu pandemic.

“We’re trying to get a universal process in place to deal with catastrophes systematically instead of as isolated events,” said Lisa Brummel, vice president of human resources.

In December, the company will launch an education campaign to prevent the spread of germs. They also will pass out free hand sanitizers to its 63,000 employees worldwide.

Sick policies a concern

The biggest concern, public-health officials say, is making sure sick workers stay home.

Because flu victims generally are contagious for several days, companies are being encouraged to develop flexible sick-leave policies.

“It’s critical that businesses be thinking about employees who would be impacted by a day without pay, much less being out for a long period of time,” said Mares.

But even in a pandemic, it may be hard to persuade some employees — especially low-wage workers — to call in sick.

“Most workers I know don’t have that luxury,” said Peter Diaz, organizing director for the Food and Commercial Workers union Local 21, which represents 30,000 retail, health-care and service workers in the Puget Sound area.

Cost-conscious employers aren’t especially generous about paying workers to stay home. The result is that guarding customers and other employees from contagious workers really depends on the generosity of individual owners and managers.

According to a 2004 survey of 10,000 businesses by the state Employment Security Department, fewer than half of all full-time workers in Washington, and only 12 percent of part-time employees, are entitled to paid sick leave.

Many big companies give workers up to three weeks of paid sick leave a year; such benefits often come only with seniority.

For example, Wal-Mart’s 1.2 million U.S. employees accumulate paid sick days at a rate of a half-day per month, and only if they work at least 34 hours a week.

At the Grease Monkey oil-change shop on Seattle’s Rainier Avenue South, assistant manager Scott Sanders said his company will hold a sick worker’s job as long as they have a doctor’s note. But the company, which offers no paid sick days, relies on workers to protect their own health.

If an employee is sick, Sanders says he’d prefer them to go home. “But if they choose not to, that’s their choice.”

Down the street, Remo Borracchini doesn’t offer paid sick leave to his roughly 40 employees at Borracchini’s Bakery. But in the food industry, he said, he has no choice but to take extra precautions.

“You walk in here sneezing and you’re gone for the day.”

While educating workers about health risks is the first step, employers are only beginning to contemplate the economic impact of mass absenteeism, ruptures in the supply chain or a breakdown in the public infrastructure.

A recent poll of American chief information officers showed that even after Hurricane Katrina, one in five U.S. businesses doesn’t have any formal disaster-recovery plans.

While brain-powered tech firms might stay running with employees working online from home, retailers and manufacturers could suffer huge losses if the public is either afraid to go out or required by health officials to stay home.

“I’ll be honest, we’re still thinking though the answers,” said Kelly Donaghy, a spokeswoman for fire and safety protection at Boeing. The company has formed a task force to analyze its preparedness.

“It’s nearly impossible to stay in business with 30 percent of your work force at home. We’ll have to focus on our essential functions,” Donaghy said.

Insurance isn’t likely to be of any help.

Although a survey by the insurance broker Marsh found that nearly half of large and midsize American businesses have purchased terrorism insurance since 9/11, business insurance against a pandemic doesn’t exist in the U.S.

So-called “contingent business income coverage,” which protects companies against a sudden loss of a supplier, generally only kicks in after business losses following physical damage from hurricanes, fires or other natural disasters.

“If you’re a major corporation, with offices and suppliers around the globe, you should be more concerned about a pandemic that can wipe out your entire work force than you should a localized terrorist attack,” said Peter Sipkin, a Minneapolis attorney who is organizing a national conference on legal issues surrounding pandemic flu.

Mares minces fewer words: “If you’re prepared to handle an earthquake, you need to be prepared for a pandemic.”

In the case of a pandemic flu, local health officers warn it could take six to eight months to develop a vaccine.

So the health department may have to exercise wide powers, such as closing schools and banning large gatherings like sports events and concerts.

In King County, Public Health has not considered the forced closure of businesses.

“It’s frightening, because we’ve grown so accustomed to medicines and vaccines,” said Mares, who notes that her husband’s great-grandmother in Montana cared for victims of the 1918 Spanish flu.

“The old-fashioned methods of covering coughs and sneezes still work best,” Mares said.

Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or jgoodman@seattletimes.com

Staff reporters Cara Solomon and Warren King contributed

to this report.