WASHINGTON — The federal government is urging employers to offer flexible sick leave policies as the nation braces for a second wave of the H1N1 influenza pandemic.
Officials are urging a "hands and home" approach — keeping hands clean by washing and sanitizing them, and keeping ill workers at home.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offered guidance to businesses on how to prevent the spread of H1N1, also known as swine flu, and to prepare for a major outbreak.
They stressed allowing employees who exhibit flu symptoms to go home and to stay home until at least 24 hours have passed since their fevers subsided. They also said businesses should consider eliminating policies that require a doctor's note or other proof to justify a sick day and that employers should be prepared to run their operations with fewer people.
"It's more than just a significant health issue. It has the potential to affect every aspect of our lives," Locke said. "It will take Americans from every walk of life pulling together and doing our part to mount an effective response."
Employers should cross-train workers so that vital functions are covered and must take active steps to ensure that the H1N1 virus does not spread, officials said.
Such steps include aggressively cleaning work areas, encouraging hand-washing and sending employees home at the first hint of flu symptoms.
As the first pandemic in more than 40 years, swine flu has the potential to cause massive disruptions for businesses, schools and governments. The United States and other northern nations have been scrambling to prepare for a resurgence of the virus by stockpiling flu treatments and vaccines.
The virus, which first surfaced last spring in Mexico, has spread to at least 168 countries and sickened 177,000. It has contributed to at least 1,462 deaths, including 477 in the United States, and is still circulating in the population.
Last spring, the arrival of H1N1 in the United States led to the closure of more than 700 schools nationwide. Younger people appear to be more vulnerable to it.