Evacuation orders are still being announced in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which has caused massive damage and displacement of individuals in the coastal communities of Southeast Texas. Employees and employers working in all the areas affected by the storm and subsequent floods are balancing their personal and professional lives during these anxious times. Whether they have been unable to work during the past week or unable to return home, there is an obvious financial and emotional toll.
Natural disasters can have a devastating effect on individuals, businesses, management, employees, and customers. Power interruptions, disrupted communications, and continued transportation difficulties can create obstacles to the resumption of normal activity for your business. How an employer navigates a significant crisis can have a lasting impact on a business’ operations, its reputation with customers, and more importantly, its employees.
The following is a checklist of issues an employer needs to address in the immediate hours and days following any natural disaster.
- Pay Your Employees for the Time They Would Have Worked
Salaried, exempt employees are entitled to their full salaries for any work week in which they perform any work, subject to limited exceptions. However, neither federal law nor Texas state law requires employers to pay nonexempt employees for time that they do not spend working. Thus, employers that were closed for only part of a work week could find themselves in a situation where their exempt employees are getting paid their full weekly salaries but their nonexempt employees are taking an economic hit. To help lessen the blow, and to be more equitable, employers with the financial ability to pay their nonexempt employees for the hours they would have worked if Hurricane Harvey had not hit the region may want to do so.
- Dust Off That Emergency Response Plan or Make One
Employers who have one should pull their emergency response plans off the shelf long before a disaster strikes. This preparation will pay dividends and keep employees’ activities and actions on track to effectively triage a current crisis. But if you don’t currently have an emergency response plan, use this crisis to create one! Document the steps you take, the plans that worked, and most importantly, the plans that didn’t.
- Communication Plan
The division of labor and responsibility among an employer’s management team is critical to navigating a crisis well. Management teams and department leaders should understand their roles as soon as a crisis presents itself. Employers should assign separate responsibilities within each department to address immediate issues. In addition, employers should assign a separate group within each department to the continuation of business operations. Pulling together this team may require employers to reassign employees and supervisors from other regions and divisions to assist the locations and offices impacted by the disaster.
There are four key stakeholders that should be part of your communication plan:
Crisis Management Team: To effectively navigate any crisis and formulate the company’s messaging plan, it is critical for an employer to coordinate the activities between company management. An employer’s crisis management team should be composed of members of senior management, operations, security, human resources, finance, communications, and perhaps other departments. Members of the group should convene at scheduled times to discuss the status of their respective areas of responsibility and their plans going forward.
Employees: Your workforce needs to be updated on scheduling, resumption of operations, the employee assistance programs (EAP) that are available, and the status of the company’s response. Company websites, intranets, and social media, in addition to predesignated crisis phone numbers, should be updated frequently with the latest relevant information.
Customers and Clients: Your customers and clients will want to be assured that you are still operating (albeit in difficult circumstances) and that you appreciate their business, patience, and understanding. If business operations are interrupted in such a way that customers and clients will be affected, companies should be prepared to notify these contacts of their reasonable estimates for restored operations.
Public: The public at large, as well as the appropriate civil and regulatory authorities, should also be kept abreast of the status of your operations. For example, a company’s website could advise the public that some operations in the affected areas may be disrupted for a specific duration, but that company operations in unaffected regions are ongoing and taking on extra capacity to bridge the gap. Federal and state regulatory agencies—especially those that regulate certain industries—may have an interest in your response as well. Keep in mind that the public image that a company displays of preparedness and an effective response to the immediate crisis will create an image of industry leadership.
- Provide Employees with No-interest Loans or Pay Advances
Many employers may not be able to afford to pay employees for not working. However, they may have the ability to offer pay advances or no-interest loans to hard-hit employees. Any such advance or loan should be properly documented through appropriate paperwork, including a promissory note and repayment agreement. Employers must also be mindful of complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Texas Payday Law if repayments will be deducted from employees’ paychecks.
- Relax or Temporarily Enhance Vacation/PTO Policies
Employers may have policies that restrict employees’ ability to use paid time off (PTO) or vacation subject to a certain amount of notice, in certain blocks of time, or during certain times of the year. Employers may want to ease those restrictions to allow employees to have a source of income while off from work due a disaster. Employers also may want to consider allowing employees who were not affected by the disaster to donate their unused vacation/PTO time to a vacation/PTO bank for affected employees or allowing affected employees to take an advance day(s) of future vacation or PTO.
- Attendance Policies and Remote Work
Employers may want to relax their attendance policies to allow employees to take unpaid time off from work to address personal issues, and if you don’t already have them, try to identify remote opportunities. Employers may want to consider whether they can provide employees with opportunities to perform their work from locations other than their normal work site. In some cases, this might mean working from home, but for an employee who is displaced from his or her home, it could mean working from a temporary residence or from one of the employer’s other locations. Consider the work that has to be done as a whole instead of position-specific duties. You may find that some tasks are easily configured for remote work, but temporary reassignment may be needed. In the end, this could create a stronger, more resilient team!
- Impromptu Childcare Solutions
Employers may want to consider that while some employees survived the disaster, their childcare may not. In the days after an event, finding childcare can be an impossibility even though the worker is willing to come in. If remote work isn’t an option, employers may want to set up a temporary solution that allows the employees to get their work done so your organization can get back on its feet faster. Take a conference room and hire babysitters so that your staff can focus on your clients.
- Remind Employees of EAP Programs
Many employers have employee assistance programs, known as EAPs. If you have an EAP program, this is a prime time to encourage your employees to take advantage of it. If you do not have an EAP Program, make sure to help your employees get access to assistance that they will need in the months to come.
- Evaluate Workplace Safety
Employers are responsible for protecting their employees from unreasonable dangers. During natural disasters, employers should ensure the safety of their employees who are working in and around a damaged workplace. In particular, employers should protect employees from unreasonable exposure to hazards that may be present as a result of a natural disaster, such as slip-and-fall hazards, electrical exposures, and even exhaustion from working extended shifts. Employers should continue to make personal protective equipment available and ensure that employees put such equipment to use.
- Take Note of Emergency Responders
Some of your employees may be members of the National Guard or volunteer responders called up for duty by the state governor or President of the United States. Job protections are in place for these employees and some state laws may be implicated to address unique situations. It’s also recommended to consider the spouses of first responders. While you may not be directly employing a first responder, they may be taking a toll on your employee nonetheless. It’s a heavy burden that they will be dealing with while their other half is off rescuing victims of the disaster, and their individual circumstances may need to be considered.
Remember that while a myriad of legal issues will arise during the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the true costs of a natural disaster transcend business costs. A natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey has its most acute impact on people, including your employees. Your employees may have suffered injuries, deaths, and significant property damages that can have a lasting and profound impact on their personal lives. Employers should not lose sight of the fact that those who work for their businesses may need support in many ways during a crisis. For this reason, employers may need to adapt to the needs of their employees to the greatest extent possible. Employers may find that being supportive, reasonable, and understanding with its workforce during these critical times is the best course of action. Corporate responsibility and good citizenship will reflect well on your organization during a crisis.