Grand Junction businesses coping with flu

Many firms rely on wits to stay open

Photo by Gretel Daugherty—Greg Freeman, owner of Freeman’s Barber Stop, washes his hands after cutting a client’s hair at his barber shop, 1121 North Ave. Freeman said he’s taken to washing his hands 20 to 30 times a day since the swine has appeared in the area. “The last thing I want to do is wear a mask,” he said.

When Nisley Elementary School was closed earlier this month because of an outbreak of the H1N1 virus, about 40 percent of its 436 students were ill, but only nine of its 64 staff members, 14 percent, were sick.

The school was closed on a Thursday and Friday, and janitors disinfected the school over the weekend.

It is representative of how the H1N1 virus has affected institutions and businesses in the community. For the most part, adults are not contracting the virus, but children, teenagers and young adults are being affected. The illnesses are giving many businesses cause to pause and consider how best to cope with the spreading virus while at the same time keeping their doors open for business.

“It is a concern,” said Greg Freeman, owner of Freeman’s Barber Shop, 1121 North Ave. “I probably wash my hands about 20 to 30 times a day now, and if somebody says they have it (H1N1), I stand back.”

He’ll still cut their hair. But with only him and one other part-time employee, an illness in the workplace could force him to shut his doors.

Randy Greathouse, owner of Precision Printing, 615 Colorado Ave., said he has not given much thought to the possibility of losing half of his 10 employees to the flu, but he has thought about it.

“I’m not sure I have come up with a final solution,” he said. “We do have some flexibility in our cross training, so for the most part we can step into alternate positions and carry on. It definitely would be a hardship.”

He said he would have to be more flexible with time off for employees who might not be ill, but have ill family members that need to be cared for.

“While business is important, home and family take precedence,” Greathouse said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 2,916 deaths nationwide from influenza and pneumonia-associated deaths from Aug. 30 to Oct. 24. While the numbers are a concern, the death toll is less than many had predicted. Still, H1N1 is forcing businesses to consider the worst-case scenario.

In September, the Harvard School of Public Health released a survey that found many businesses unprepared for the fallout a pandemic might cause. One-third of respondents said they could continue business without severe problems if half their work force were absent for two weeks. One-fifth said they could carry on for a month without half their employees.

The study also found only 35 percent of businesses offer employees paid leave to care for ill family members, and only 21 percent offer paid leave for employees to stay home and care for children affected by school or day care closures.

Locally, the virus is prompting some businesses to act more than others.

Lynne Sorlye, general manager of Clarion Inn, 755 Horizon Drive, said she has an obligation to guests and employees to keep her establishment H1N1 free.

“Hotels have kind of a unique position because we do welcome guests coming to us from everywhere,” Sorlye said. “We are going through hand sanitizer by the bucket full.”

She called the Mesa County Health Department for advice on how to keep her doors open if the situation worsens. She has invited several other hotel managers to attend a 30-minute preparedness seminar that is offered to businesses by the Mesa County Health Department for free and upon request.

So far, Sorlye said, staff strength has been fine, with no increase of employees out sick. Other establishments have not been as fortunate.

One of First National Bank of the Rockies’ 10 branches in northwest Colorado had a number of employees call in sick, according to Patti Roberts, human resources director for First National Bank.

“We have had to reinforce with folks from other offices,” Roberts said. She declined to identify which branch was affected.

The bank has placed hand sanitizers at each teller station and instructed branch managers to send employees home when they are sick, she said. The bank has a road map already plotted to deal with events like the flu.

“Through our banking regulations, our charter, we are required to have a pandemic plan in place,” Roberts said.

One of the region’s energy companies, EnCana, has drafted battle plans to deal with H1N1.

“We began planning, I think, in late August,” EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said.

The company looked at each department and determined the essential functions of each, then it tried to figure out how to maintain those functions with a reduced workforce.

“Just so we are not making those decisions at the time when an emergency situation occurs,” he said.

Hock said he did not know if any employees became ill from the virus, but there were some staying home with ill children. Those employees are asked to stay home until the flu is gone, he added.

King Soopers and City Market, which have more than 18,000 employees statewide, provide sanitary wipes for customers to use on shopping carts and, as part of normal operations, encourage employees to wash hands often and follow CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of the flu.

If one store suffers a shortage of workers, for whatever reason, other stores can send employees to pick up the slack, said Kelli McGannon, a spokeswoman for King Soopers.


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