Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is the new disease currently disrupting travel and businesses across the globe. Its appearance indicates that now is a critical time for your financial institution to consider its readiness to respond to a pandemic or other potential catastrophe. Pandemic planning presents unique challenges to financial institution management. Unlike natural disasters, technical disasters, malicious acts, or terrorist events, the impact of a pandemic is much more difficult to determine because of the anticipated difference in scale and duration. Pandemic planning impacts all areas of your financial institution and should include the board, management, information technology, operations, human resource, legal, and compliance. Financial institutions should be prepared to provide financial services under extreme circumstances, or in the face of public restrictions on travel or business, by adopting a proactive and mindful approach to health and safety. At the very least, your financial institution should utilize the sources and factors described below.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019. The CDC recommends the following strategies for employers:
- Encourage sick employees to stay home if they have respiratory illness symptoms including fever, a cough, or shortness of breath. This includes making sure that leave policies are flexible and permit some employees to work from home.
- Separate employees who show signs of symptoms upon arrival to work or who become sick during the day. All efforts should be made to balance the obligation to provide a safe workplace against the obligation of confidentiality that may be owed to affected individuals.
- Emphasize staying at home when an employee is sick, germ prevention techniques, and overall hygiene. This can include emphasizing the need for employees to cover coughs and sneezes, regularly sanitize hands, and regularly wash hands.
- Periodically clean areas that are likely to carry germs, including doorknobs, workstations, teller lines, desks, telephones, and countertops.
- Stay up-to-date on areas of coronavirus concentration and act intentionally with employee travel.
- Advise employees who have a sick family member at home to self-isolate until the family member’s illness can be identified and treated.
The CDC published an excellent Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist that includes identified tasks for a large business considering its response to a flu-like pandemic. In addition, FEMA has created a model business continuity template to assist organizations in incorporating flu-like pandemic considerations into continuity planning. Overall, your financial institution should focus its plan on the following key risk areas:
- Reducing transmission among financial institution employees,
- Protecting people who are at higher risk for adverse health complications such as the young, sick, or elderly,
- Maintaining business operations in light of employee shortages or customer limitations, and
- Minimizing adverse effects on financial institution customers.
When considering your financial institution’s response plan, you should:
- Identify possible work-related exposure and health risks to your employees. The most likely risks to the financial institution include the risk of transmission from other sick employees or through interactions with the financial institution’s customers.
- Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are flexible. Encourage employees to stay home when sick, when a family member is sick, or in the event of potential risk to the financial institution.
- Establish policies and practices such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees and others if state and local health authorities recommend the use of social distancing strategies.
- Encourage employees able to telework to do so instead of coming into the workplace, at least until risks are completely controlled. Test now to ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may need to work from home.
- Identify essential business functions, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within the financial institution required to maintain business operations (i.e., Information Technology, Management, Compliance). Plan for how the financial institution will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or certain groups have high absenteeism (i.e., no IT staff).
- Set up authorities, triggers, and procedures for activating and terminating the company’s infectious disease outbreak response plan and altering business operations. For example, possibly changing or closing operations in affected areas—such as a “drive through only” model.
- Establish a process to communicate information to employees and customers in the event of restrictions or limitations. Plan now to anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and plan communications accordingly so that there is clear messaging to your employees and customers.
- Determine how the financial institution will continue to operate if early childhood programs and K-12 schools are dismissed. Particular attention should be given to plans that address absenteeism spikes from increases in sick employees, those who stay home to care for sick family members, and those who must stay home to watch their children if dismissed from school.
- Cancel non-essential business travel per travel guidance on the CDC website.
- Implement a process to deal with government-imposed travel restrictions that may limit the ability of employees to return home if they become sick or otherwise impact key business operations.
- Cancel large or non-essential work-related meetings or events.
- Engage with state and local health departments. Confirm channels of communication and methods for dissemination of local outbreak information.
- Incorporate guidance provided by public health officials. Local conditions will influence the decisions that public health officials make regarding community-level strategies; financial institutions should take the time now to learn about plans in place in each community where they operate.
Further consider the following relevant guidance issued by the prudential financial regulators:
(2008) Interagency Statement on Pandemic Planning. Consistent with CDC guidelines, the Interagency Statement includes a focus on maintaining business operations in the face of such challenges. Importantly, examiners will look for a documented strategy to respond to a pandemic. Within this plan, the financial institution should have:
- Preventative programs to minimize employee and customer transmission.
- A program to train employees on the particular pandemic and risks associated with transmission.
- A strategy for maintaining business facilities, systems, and procedures. This strategy should include information regarding social distancing, telecommuting, electronic banking, alternate sites, or alternate delivery strategies. In addition, the financial institution should consider what would happen due to an increased demand for ATMs, online banking, mobile banking, and call centers.
- An assessment of potential business disruptions and how the financial institution can mitigate the severity of this impact.
- A testing program to determine the effectiveness of the strategy.
- A map of key customer activities and how these or alternate facilities, systems, or procedures can be maintained in the event of a pandemic.
(2019) Updated Business Continuity Management (“BCM”) guidelines include additional obligations of financial institutions responding to challenges to critical financial services. Though not specifically addressing pandemic events, these guidelines provide a useful framework for any financial institution structuring its pandemic response programs.
Learn more about the implications of this outbreak or other business continuity threats by contacting the authors or any other member of the Banking & Financial Services Group.