Benefits, HR Policies & Procedures, Strategic HR

Preparing for a Natural Disaster or Emergency

In the aftermath of a natural disaster (or other emergency situation), a lot of organizations learn what they should have done to prepare in advance. For example, does your organization have a clear point of contact for employees to turn to for the latest information on the status of the workplace and when they should report in? Do you already have a policy for handling employee pay for days missed due to such a situation? Or do you handle these things on a case-by-case basis?

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Note: this article discusses things employers can do to be better prepared; this is different than your legal obligations, which are limited. Employers have a vested interest in helping employees who are in a difficult situation; doing so can help them get back on their feet—which helps the employer get back to full productivity faster.

After a Disaster: the Employee Perspective

It’s critical to remember the situation employees are likely dealing with during and after a disaster strikes. For example, employees may be dealing with:

  • Extreme property clean up and repairs
  • Insurance claims
  • Finding temporary housing
  • Extra childcare needs while school waits to resume normal schedule
  • Injuries
  • Loss of power and/or water
  • Loss of ability to communicate via internet or cell phone
  • Lack of information on where to get help
  • Lots of extra expenses in the form of emergency supplies, insurance deductibles, or even repairs that aren’t covered by insurance
  • Packing and unpacking belongings, especially during an evacuation

This represents a very stressful situation for everyone. When the employer is not prepared with accurate work-related information, it just adds to the stress.

Ways for Employers to Prepare for a Natural Disaster or Emergency

Thankfully, there are a lot of ways employers can be better prepared for these situations.

Besides general disaster preparation, there are steps employers can take to make this situation easier for everyone:

  • Communicate early and often. This can apply before a disaster if it can be anticipated, such as in advance of an approaching hurricane. Even when advance communication is not possible, this advice is critical for after disaster strikes. As soon as possible, let employees know expectations in terms of:
    • when the work site will reopen (or when they will receive another communication about this, if it’s too soon to know)
    • whether they will be allowed to work from home
    • whether they will have to take PTO for days missed
  • Plan in advance about how employees will be paid when they cannot come in to work. Determine the policy for 1) when the workplace cannot be open, and 2) when the workplace is open but the employee(s) cannot come in. Communicate this in advance. Remember to take into consideration how your decisions will affect employee morale in what is already a difficult situation. Just because you may not have a legal obligation to pay employees who cannot come to work, opting to forgo paying employees may have major negative repercussions.
  • Create and use a disaster or emergency plan. One key component is to know who will communicate to employees about the workplace status. Ensure that lines of responsibility are clear to avoid miscommunications or conflicting information.
  • Have data backups in place at all times and know who is responsible for checking on them and getting systems up and running after a disaster strikes.
  • Ensure the employee communication plan does not depend on the offices to be functioning. For example, you may need to have printouts or other backup copies of employee contact info. You may need to have a “phone tree” or other informal communication network set up in advance to disseminate information to a large group. Don’t assume you’ll be able to rely on the company’s email system or address books to get information—employees will want to be contacted to understand what is going on, even if all forms of normal communications are down.
  • Ensure your communications plan includes ways to follow up with employees who were previously unreachable. While it’s normal for someone to be out of contact after a disaster, the employer should ensure they keep trying when it’s reasonable to do so.
  • Train managers on what to expect after a disaster. Employees will be stressed, out of sorts, and likely less productive. They’ll want to talk about their experiences and productivity will not be at maximum levels for a while. This is all to be expected. Trying to force employees back to full productivity too quickly may backfire.

For more about natural disaster planning and how employers can help, see “Helping Employees After a Natural Disaster” for more tips.