Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 11 News List

AIG, Goldman limit travel, warn staff as SARS spreads


American International Group Inc, the world's largest insurer, isn't taking chances with the global respiratory disease that has killed at least 79 people.

Travel will be limited and the company told its 80,000 employees to avoid handles, doorknobs or railings in "high-risk areas." Goldman Sachs Group Inc Chairman Henry Paulson postponed a trip to Hong Kong and mainland China this week and the firm, the No. 3 investment bank by capital, now requires workers to seek "divisional or departmental approval" to travel to Asia, spokesman Peter Rose said.

Fearing the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, companies are taking steps to safeguard their workers from the unexplained virus that infected more than 2,270 people. They are recommending staff wear protective masks in Asia, urging them to stay away from the office when they return from the region and stepping up office cleaning and health warnings.

"If you must travel to high-risk areas, try to avoid crowded areas," American International wrote in a memo to employees Friday. "Avoid touching handles, doorknobs and railings, and always wash your hands before touching your face."

HSBC Holdings Plc, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc and Standard Chartered Plc have banned nonessential travel and told workers to use video conferencing. Microsoft Corp is letting Asian employees work from home. Singapore-based Flextronics International Ltd has hired medical staff to monitor employees.

"There's just a lot of reasons why it's not a good idea to travel right now," said Ted Cullen, who oversees travel for Nike Inc.

Corporate travel began to flag in early 2001 as the US economy slowed and companies tightened spending -- and then plunged further after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Oil companies including Unocal, BP Plc, Kerr-McGee Corp and Apache Corp with operations in Asia had already clamped down on travel because of the war. They've distributed health advisories to their employees worldwide.

"We had already sharply restricted travel because of the war, so we didn't impose any further restriction," said Debbie Schram, a spokeswoman for Kerr-McGee, a US oil explorer operating in China's Bohai Bay.

After fighting started in Iraq, Novartis AG, Europe's third-biggest drugmaker, sent out a memo telling workers they needn't travel if they didn't feel comfortable.

"People learned after nine-eleven how to get the job done without getting on a plane," said Paul Tomaszeski, the executive director of administration at the US division of Novartis.

Mike DeNoma, Standard Chartered's head of consumer banking, and Kai Nargolwala, head of wholesale banking, canceled their plans to travel from Singapore to the bank's board meeting in Chennai, India, tomorrow and Tuesday because of the restrictions, spokeswoman Caoimhe Buckley said.

"We have urged staff to avoid unnecessary contact if they can use video conferencing and teleconferencing instead," Buckley said. Travel is restricted for Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Vietnam, Buckley said.

New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc spokeswoman Katherine Shepard said the shoemaker has banned all international travel both because of the war and SARS.

Societe Generale, France's third-biggest bank, recommends that corporate and investment bank employees returning from business trips to China work from home, rather than returning to the office, spokeswoman Stephanie Carson-Parker said.

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