When we turn on the weather this time of year, there are reports of hurricanes all over the United States, devastating homes, schools, hospitals, businesses and entire cities. In fact, last year’s trio of deadly hurricanes resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of damages, and they were among the five costliest hurricanes in US history since 1900 – Hurricane Harvey ($125 billion), Hurricane Maria ($90 billion) and Hurricane Irma ($50 billion).
Hurricanes create a tremendous amount of employment-related issues, including ones involving leave and time off, workplace safety, wage and hour questions and the protection of employer and employee property. Thus, it is absolutely essential for employers and HR to be aware of these hazards and take steps to prepare, minimize risk and protect their employees.
Develop an Emergency Action Plan
Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), an employer is required to provide a safe and healthy workplace for employees. One of the best ways to prepare for a hurricane is to develop an emergency action plan (EAP) tailored to an employer’s particular workplace and flexible enough to deal with unexpected situations. The EAP should include:
- Emergency reporting procedures;
- Emergency evacuation plans, escape routes and designated safe areas;
- Employer contact information;
- Contact and location information for area hospitals;
- Emergency communication and notification procedures;
- Procedures for protecting employees and securing work areas and employer property;
- Procedures for notifying employees’ family members or emergency contacts; and
- Procedures for addressing the media.
The employer should also designate a team responsible for making sure the EAP is properly carried out. The team should consist of various members of management, in-house counsel, local law enforcement, HR, security and property managers. These individuals will know the steps to take and communicate to employees in the event of an impending storm.
Make Sure Employees Know Policies and Procedures
An employer must notify employees of the policies and procedures to follow in case of a hurricane. The following policies should be in place, and an employer may want to consider incorporating these into an employee handbook:
- An emergency communications policy, which sets forth the communication channels (i.e. how to access the employer’s network, local number for emergency updates/office closures) to use during a storm;
- An inclement weather and office closings policy, which establishes procedures for a closure/delayed opening based on severe weather conditions and establishes procedures to notify employees;
- An emergency procedures policy, which sets forth procedures for employees to follow in case of a hurricane; and
- An emergency evacuation policy, which establishes evacuation procedures (including how, when, and where to evacuate and exit the building and the employer’s premises safely and securely).
Train Employees Based on Roles and Responsibilities
It is important for an employer to prepare employees for a hurricane and tailor training to an employee’s job duties and responsibilities. This is particularly vital for employees that will be responsible for the health, safety and welfare of co-employees and third parties and their conduct could jeopardize employer-provided equipment and devices. For example, if an employee drives an employer-provided vehicle, the employee should know the steps to take in case of a hurricane.
Anticipate Wage and Hour Issues
If a workplace is forced to close based on a hurricane, an employer will need to determine whether employees must be paid during the closure by evaluating several factors including:
- Whether the employee is exempt or nonexempt under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state wage and hour laws;
- The length and timing of the workplace closure; and
- Whether the employee is able to work remotely, telecommute or perform any functions while at home or not at the workplace.
An employer should also consult any employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements that may mandate payment even when it is not required by the FLSA. Paying employees during workplace closures due to hurricanes may also improve employee morale, engagement and retention.
Plan for Leave Issues to Arise
When a hurricane hits, employees may be entitled to various types of leave and time off under federal, state and local law. An employer should plan ahead and anticipate providing leave to:
- Members of the National Guard or volunteer emergency responders who may need to assist in rescue and recovery efforts under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA);
- Injured employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA);
- Employees suffering from a serious health condition caused by the hurricane under the FMLA; and
- Employees who must care for a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition caused by the hurricane as provided for by the FMLA.
Additionally, an employer may have internal policies providing leave rights and protections to employees affected by hurricanes or other natural disasters.
Address the Aftermath
Frequently, a severe hurricane may disrupt and impact an employer’s workplace and business for days. Therefore, it is critical to implement an emergency preparedness plan to keep the business running and employees working.
Further, an employer should recognize that after a severe or catastrophic weather event, an employer may need to:
- Report workplace fatalities and other injuries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA);
- Grant employee requests for reasonable accommodations based on physical or emotional injuries under the ADA or similar state laws unless it would create an undue hardship;
- Determine how to continue coverage of employee benefit programs in the event the business is unable to run or employees are unable to work;
- Permit employees to work remotely for the short or long term and ensure employees meet deadlines and accurately report hours worked;
- Communicate with a deceased employee’s family, including expressing condolences, returning the employee’s belongings and providing final paychecks and applicable benefits; and
- Provide traumatized employees with services through an employee assistance program.
How does your organization prepare for hurricanes or other natural disasters? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.