Natural disasters wreak havoc on all facets of a community. The death toll from fire, flood, wind, snow, and ice is the most obvious concern, but the property damage that can leave people homeless or dealing with serious damage causes problems long after the initial storm passes.
Employers, too, have to deal with loss, damage, and distracted or absent employees. Recent floods in South Carolina and Texas have taken a toll on businesses there. As employers deal with recent storms and look ahead to winter weather challenges, a look at how to respond to weather disasters can help businesses prepare for emergencies.
It doesn’t take a storm on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which wracked the Gulf Coast in August 2005, or Hurricane Sandy that pummeled the Northeast in October 2012 to interrupt employers’ operations. But a look back to advice coming out of those mega-storms can help employers deal with the isolated tornados, floods, wildfires, or lesser adversities that can cause long-term setbacks.
“Your plan for responding to and recovering from a crisis must take into account the effect it will have on your workers and the ways you can help them become productive again, even in the face of personal loss,” the September 2005 Louisiana Employment Law Letter advised employers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The newsletter also offered these tips for coping with catastrophes.
- Communicate with employees. The newsletter’s authors point out that when disaster strikes, employees suffer loss of family, friends, homes, and possessions. An interruption in work can compound that heartache. Therefore, it’s important for employers to locate and contact employees as soon as possible after a disaster and tell them the company’s status and plans so they’ll know how to plan. “For example, if a leave of absence, relocation, or layoff is inevitable, employees should be told as soon as possible so they can plan accordingly,” the article states. “Don’t leave them in the dark about their employment.”
- Keep leadership visible. The newsletter also advises letting employees know who’s in charge of the various aspects of response or recovery efforts. Restoring order and direction will give employees “the confidence to stick with the company and work together while it responds to and recovers from the disaster.”
- Give managers and supervisors tools. The managers and supervisors who work directly with employees are in the best position to spot indicators of emotional or behavioral conditions that need attention, the newsletter says. “At a minimum, your managers and supervisors should know to refer affected employees to an employee assistance program (EAP) or HR for the identification of other sources of professional assistance,” the article states.
- Cut employees some slack. The article’s authors point out that employees may need time to get their personal lives in order. “Revisit your leave policies and benefits to determine whether the nature of the crisis warrants a revision or extended leave or benefits,” the article states. “Make sure you apply your policies uniformly, and avoid jumping to conclusions if an employee misses work, makes a mistake, or just doesn’t seem herself.”
- Help employees with personal affairs. After a disaster, employees many need to spend time during business hours getting their lives back in order. The article suggests that an employer may want to set aside an office with a phone and Internet access to allow employees to take care of private personal matters during their breaks so they can get back to business as usual as quickly as possible.
- Get involved in relief efforts. “If the disaster or crisis is one that affected others outside your workplace, consider becoming involved in relief efforts and allowing employees to participate,” the article states. “Becoming productive again and helping others can be rewarding and therapeutic for employees and the economy.
- Develop or update disaster response and recovery plans. The article suggests using the lessons learned from a disaster to develop or update a plan.
In addition to dealing with communications and personal issues, emergencies also trigger legal issues. The New York Employment Law Letter outlined important lessons Hurricane Sandy brought to light.
- Address wage and hour questions. The article points out that an emergency likely “does not alter the fundamental rights and obligations concerning the payment of wages.” State and local laws have to be considered along with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
- Consider leave and disability issues. Disasters often trigger employee requests for leave to take care of medical conditions suffered by them or their family members. The article advises employers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to be as vigilant as possible about issuing forms and notifications. Although the FMLA allows eligible employees up to 12 weeks a year for FMLA leave, the Americans with Disabilities Act and certain state laws may require extended leave to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability.
- Examine disaster policy. When a disaster looms, “employers are well served to review their basic rights as well as their obligations to their employees,” the article states. “Those same rights and obligations, along with basic information about work cancellation procedures, may be summarized in a written disaster policy that is included in an employee handbook.”
Need help preparing your employees for a disaster or interruption in business? BLR’s online training course Disaster Planning: What Employees Need to Know teaches employees how to deal with workplace disasters and other emergencies. At the end of this training course, employees will be able to identify different types of workplace disasters, understand the requirements of the emergency response plan, carry out emergency response assignments effectively, and evacuate quickly and safely in an emergency. To learn more, go to http://store.hrhero.com/training-today-disaster-planning.