Over the past few weeks, many people across the country and beyond have been tuning in to witness the devastation that has been brought upon Houston, Texas and its residents amidst the destructive Hurricane Harvey, and then in Florida and the Caribbean by Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Harvey caused extreme flooding throughout the region, damaging thousands of homes, displacing 30,000 people, and causing economic losses of an estimated $70 to $190 billion (Wikipedia) Hurricane Irma has been similarly catastrophic, resulting in over $63 billion in economic losses.
As many people watch from afar, they share thoughts expressing concern for how exactly the residents of the areas affected by these hurricanes will rebuild and recover after such a devastating event, and gratitude that the hurricane did not wreak havoc on their own towns. The reality is, however, that disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, can happen in other places. They can cause extreme disruption to the livelihoods of many people- and this extends to the workplace. These natural disasters have become a reminder to employers to consider taking steps to be as prepared as possible in the likelihood that a natural disaster occurs.
Unfortunately, many employers are too distracted by the day-to-day operations to think about the potential for a natural disaster to severely disrupt the organizational continuity. According to Benefits Pro, 61% of small businesses have no form of a disaster plan. This is problematic, as there are many issues that arise in the aftermath of a disaster that employers are forced to deal with immediately, such as:
- How do you pay employees if operations are suspended?
- To what extent should health benefits be offered?
- What rights do employees have to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?
When disaster strikes, HR can and should play a crucial role in ensuring compliance, supporting employees, and maintaining business operations to the highest extent possible. Here are some steps employers can take to be best prepared in the case of a crisis:
- Establish an understanding of the current federal and local laws. Employers should be well aware of the laws that can shape the workplace policies surrounding natural disaster response and management. There are many different laws in play, and these laws are always changing and evolving, so employers must make it a point to maintain an awareness of them. Some laws to be familiar with include the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN).
- Develop crisis procedures. All workplaces should have some form of plan that can be undertaken in the case of a natural disaster or emergency. This plan should be informed by the laws listed above, and include elements such as proper procedures for communication, payroll, personnel records, and more. Furthermore, employers should establish a crisis response team, who will be trained extensively on these procedures and will be responsible for communicating them to the organization at large.
- Establish in advance real-time communication channels. In the midst of an emergency or natural disaster, employees should have no questions about what they need to do to obtain important information concerning the workplace. Employers should be proactive in establishing communication channels that will be used in the case of an emergency, and should communicate the importance of using and referring to the chosen channel to all employees.
The above steps are just a few ways that employers can begin to prepare for a natural disaster. In general, employers should understand that disasters can strike unexpectedly, and a failure to prepare can be extremely costly, not to mention dangerous. Developing an understanding of the laws that shape how employers should respond in the event of a disaster is crucial, as is developing crisis procedures and effectively communicating them throughout the organization.
Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma and the devastation it has caused. Click here to find resources concerning Hurricane Harvey and employers, and click here to learn more about recommended, IRS-verified nonprofits that you can donate money to for Harvey relief. Click here to find resources concerning Hurricane Irma and employers, and click here to learn more about recommended IRS-verified nonprofits to donate money to for Irma relief.