Photography by: Steven Valenti; Republican-American
WATERBURY- Molly Kellogg, president and CEO of Hubbard-Hall, began thinking seriously about the impact of coronavirus in her workplace as medical experts and news outlets began ringing alarm bells. The Waterbury-based chemicals company sent a memo to its roughly 100 employees, assuring the company is monitoring the situation and asking employees take common-sense precautions to avoid getting or spreading an infection. Employees sick with flu-like symptoms should stay home, everybody should wash their hands frequently, and so on.
Experts are warning businesses to plan for the potential of widespread coronavirus, much in the same way local and state governments are mapping out their resources and contingencies.
“Companies should be addressing this and I’m starting to get calls about what companies should be doing,” said Mark Soycher, human resources counsel for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.
THE U.S. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION offers guidance for businesses. It’s not exactly one-size-fits-all, but provides a basic framework for how to prepare for the absence of staff and how to cut down on transmission of illness in the workplace.
Hubbard-Hall already has a plan for worker redundancy in the event of an emergency, such as a snowstorm, that makes various staff members unavailable. Office employees can work from home. Many employees are “cross-trained” to work in multiple capacities. A manufacturing plant in South Carolina can pick up the slack if Waterbury production declines, and vice versa.
“I never thought I’d use it for coronavirus or public health,” Kellogg said of her emergency plan. “It’s designed for emergencies we would think of in our business, but frankly it holds up for anything.”
Most large companies already have contingency plans, Soycher said. Midsized companies are likely to have less formalized, written plans, he said. All companies should be reviewing their plans and contemplating how to insert coronavirus- specific contingencies, he said.
“Whether it’s the Republican- American or a mom and pop coffee shop, people have to think about how would a significant event impact my business,” said Jessica Stelmaszek, director of the Naugatuck Valley Health District. “Our communities were impacted by a tornado. We’ve experienced flooding, ice storms, superstorms, hurricanes and pandemic flu. There are so many things that can happen that can affect a whole community. While coronavirus has our attention, I think it’s a good idea to dust off those plans and update them or create them if you don’t have them.”
THE CDC ENCOURAGES BUSINESSES to keep sick employees home, and includes tips on basics such as reinforcing the importance of hand-washing; not sneezing and touching surfaces. It also recommends identifying key staff for operating with a reduced workforce.
Stelmaszek and other local health directors are offering area businesses with tips on how to cut back on infection risks. Maura Esposito, director of the Chesprocott Health District, said she’s sent tips on safety protocol to the Chamber of Commerce for her member towns of Cheshire, Prospect and Wolcott.
“It’s not just about keeping employees safe,” Esposito said. “There could be people coming into your business, how do we lessen that risk to your employees?”
It could mean simple steps, such as ensuring there is available soap and towels in public restrooms, Esposito said.
Selim Noujaim, a former state lawmaker and vice president of Noujaim Tool Co. in Waterbury, said he hasn’t given a thought to the impact coronavirus might have on his 34-employee operation. He doesn’t perceive a real risk to operations and is dubious about the outbreak. He’s seen too many threatening ailments fail to materialize.
“When was the last time you heard about Ebola?,” Noujaim asked. “It came and went very fast. Zika came and went very fast. When was the last time you heard the word Zika. I think people with billions are selling high and driving down the market to buy low. This whole thing they are just driving it for financial purposes.”
Meanwhile, influenza is here, is killing people, but it hasn’t driven financial markets down because it doesn’t get the same sort of attention as coronavirus, Noujaim said.
Influenza contributed to 58 deaths in Connecticut, and an estimated 18,000 nationally, as of Feb. 22, according to state and federal health agencies. Nine people have died nationally from coronavirus as of Tuesday.
Kellogg said she’s reviewed her supply chain, wary of possible interruptions from hard-hit countries, including China. Thankfully most of Hubbard Halls supplies are based in America, she said. She’s more worried about the potential drag to the economy, which would reduce the need for chemicals used in manufacturing.