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Lessons learned from SARS crisis

The need for contingency plans is just one of the realizations of small businesses sucker-punched by the outbreak

Special to The Globe and Mail

As the SARS crisis recedes, many small businesses sucker-punched by the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak have learned some hard lessons.

"There are definitely lessons from this to be shared," says Ralph Hui, president of the Toronto Chinese Business Association, whose more than 1,000 members saw business drop up to 95 per cent in April.

Most of them are still scrambling to rescue their companies and he says it's going to be a few weeks before they'll be able to pause long enough to sit down as a group and reflect on what to do differently in future. Others, however, are already drawing conclusions from the experience.

One of the biggest is the need to have contingency plans in place before a crisis strikes, says a memo from the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association. The memo was issued in late April after the trade group sponsored a meeting with more than 40 business leaders to discuss lessons learned from the SARS crisis.

That is something a lot of companies didn't have: Seventy-eight per cent of 739 companies that responded to a survey of Ontario Chamber of Commerce members in April did not have a contingency plan in place to deal with a public-health crisis such as SARS.

Companies were caught completely off guard when public health officials started ordering employees into quarantine, says Gus Gillespie, president of Gillespie Consulting in Toronto.

When employees started phoning in to announce they'd been quarantined, a manager's first response was typically "but I need you here." Then, it was followed by the realization that a company "can't afford to lose any more people -- stay home," he says.

Quarantines forced companies to realize that they "needed a very clear policy: that if an employee was subject to quarantine, do it, and really honour it" to keep the disease contained and prevent it from spreading through the workplace and into the community, Mr. Gillespie says.

The threat of quarantine should also prompt firms to think about the infection risks posed by visitors to their premises and to develop policies about who should be allowed in, he says.

"Most businesses have a constant stream of people coming through their doors," including customers, sales people, suppliers, even service technicians.

As well, companies must think about the hazards posed by their own staff visiting other workplaces. Some firms handled this during the outbreak by asking sales staff to phone or e-mail their reports in and avoid coming in to the office, Mr. Gillespie says.

The worst thing that could happen would be for everyone in a company to be exposed to the disease, he says. "One possibility for a small company were that to happen might be to put everyone into quarantine on the premises . . . It might be worth shipping in some bunks and just keep on working," a strategy that might also prevent exposure of workers' families to the disease, he says.

The CME memo also suggests companies develop an infrastructure to allow employees to work from home. "The bigger companies have definitely done this but I'm not sure how many small ones have," Mr. Gillespie says.

With many members of the Toronto Chinese Business Association operating one- or two-person firms or family businesses, the crisis showed how important it is for very small businesses to set aside regular savings in a contingency fund, or at least to have access to a line of credit that can be used to keep a firm afloat during emergencies, Mr. Hui says.

"Even if you don't use it now, it's better to have a credit line in force so if you need it, it's there."

SARS also illustrated why it's important to make sure that employee skills are shared so that they can cover for each other. "Make sure you have at least two people who know how to do the same job," Mr. Hui says.

Another wise move: Companies should check their medical and disability insurance policies to ensure coverage for situations such as SARS.

Wendy Hope, vice-president of external relations for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, says most short-term disability insurance policies will cover costs if employees are ordered into quarantine by public health officials, though coverage depends on the exact wording of the policy.

"There has to be proof you are being quarantined," such as getting a doctor's note, she says. "We suggest the policy holder check with their insurance company" to determine exactly what is covered and what documentation is needed.

SARS also made infection control an occupational health and safety issue in workplaces. At many firms, several employees share the same telephone and computer keyboard. The CME memo tells companies to "advise employees to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly and, if they are feeling ill, to stay home."

Mr. Gillespie says the use of disinfectants in the workplace is also something that occupational health and safety committees should address. "For years, health and safety people have advocated wiping down keyboards and phones with surface disinfectants" but companies have been lax in doing that.

Even if they did, many popular commercial disinfectants don't work, or else require such a lengthy contact time that they aren't practical for use in a busy office. Of the ones that actually kill bugs, some are carcinogenic, a situation that "makes for an interesting health and safety issue -- workplace disease versus carcinogens," he says.

Most business people recognize that SARS "was nothing you could prepare for . . . It wasn't on anybody's radar screen," points out John Crick, general manager in Toronto of AVW-TELAV Audio Visual Solutions, which rents out and operates high-end audio visual presentation equipment in 35 North American cities to conferences and conventions.

The company's Toronto operations were "terribly hurt" by the SARS-induced cancellation of several conventions in the city, including the American Cancer Society's annual gathering in April.

Even so, like many firms, AVW-TELAV delayed laying off staff when the disease struck because it assumed it would be rapidly contained, says Mr. Crick, a member of the city's SARS recovery task force.

Today, about 10 hourly employees are on layoff and the rest of AVW-TELAV's 175 employees in the Greater Toronto Area have been instructed to use up their holiday time now in hopes that business will pick up by the normally busy fall season.

"No one wants to hurt their employees and that's why we waited" to carry out layoffs, says Mr. Crick, who vows that "next time, I would react even faster.

"My advice [for the future] would be that firms have to become more manoeuvrable in their operations and react more quickly . . .," he says.

"Our survival as a business is to do whatever has to be done financially to survive so when we do recover, we still have a company that these people can come back to."

© The Globe and Mail

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