As shown by Hurricane Dorian’s devastating effects on the Bahamas, hurricane season is unquestionably upon us. Because hurricanes may have a significant impact on workplaces in a variety of ways, it is essential to be prepared.
An employer also should have a firm strategy in place to keep the business running and protect its employees. Here are some important steps to take before, during and after a hurricane.
1. Develop an Emergency Action Plan
The best thing an employer can do to prepare for a hurricane is to develop an emergency action plan tailored to the particular workplace that is flexible enough to deal with any unexpected situations that may arise.
The EAP should include:
• Emergency communication and reporting procedures;
• Emergency evacuation plans, escape routes and designated safe areas;
• Employer contact information;
• Contact and location information for area hospitals;
• 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.
2. Create a Crisis Management Team
An employer should identify a crisis management team responsible for making sure the Emergency Action Plan is properly carried out. The team should consist of various members of management, legal counsel, HR, security and at least one person with advanced knowledge of your property’s operations. Make sure these individuals know the steps to take and how to communicate with employees in the event of an impending storm.
3. Incorporate Hurricane-Related Policies into the Employee Handbook
It is important to notify employees of the policies and procedures to follow in the event of a hurricane and incorporate these policies into the employee handbook. Policies may include:
• An emergency communications policy, setting forth 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, establishing procedures for a closure/delayed opening based on severe weather conditions and procedures to notify employees;
• An emergency procedures policy, providing procedures to follow in case of a hurricane; and
• An emergency evacuation policy, establishing evacuation procedures (including how, when, and where to evacuate and exit the building and the employer’s premises safely and securely).
4. Train Employees and Supervisors
Employees and supervisors should receive training on how to prepare for a hurricane based on each individual’s role, job duties and responsibilities. Employees and supervisors responsible for the health, safety and welfare of other workers and third parties should receive enhanced training.
Additionally, workers who operate employer-provided equipment and vehicles may need to receive specific training on what to do in case of a storm.
5. Comply with Wage and Hour Laws
If a workplace is forced to close based on a hurricane, employees must be paid properly and in compliance with wage and hour laws. The following factors should be considered:
• Exempt or nonexempt status 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 may work remotely, telecommute or perform any functions while at home or outside the workplace.
Paying employees during workplace closures due to hurricanes may improve employee morale, engagement and retention. Employers also should be sure to review any employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements requiring additional payments.
6. Provide Required Leave
During a hurricane, employees may be entitled to various types of leave and time off under federal, state and local law. Leave may need to be provided to:
• National Guard Members 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; and
• Employees responsible for caring for a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition caused by the hurricane as provided for by the FMLA.
An employer also may wish to establish internal policies providing leave rights and protections to employees affected by hurricanes or other natural disasters. For example, offering paid leave to employees who volunteer to assist hurricane victims.
7. Attempt to Keep the Business Running
Because a severe hurricane may disrupt and impact the workplace and business for several days, it is important to implement an emergency preparedness plan to keep the business running. In doing so, consider the following:
• Obtaining comprehensive insurance coverage in case of emergencies;
• Procuring the resources needed to restore business operations including workspace, technology needs, supplies and equipment;
• Identifying essential employees needed to continue the business operations and providing them with incentives to keep the business afloat;
• Determining whether outside resources, personnel and contractors may be useful during the recovery period;
• Making sure employees are protected and receive adequate communications regarding the state of the business; and
• Ensuring employees are paid in the event the business closes or the employees cannot make it to work to receive payment.
8. Comply with the WARN Act
Generally, if an employer with 100 or more employees needs to take the extreme step of either closing a business or laying off a significant number of employees, the employer must comply with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) and provide employees with at least 60 days’ notice.
However, in situations where the closing or layoff is the direct result of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, an employer must still send as much notice as is practicable to the last known addresses of the affected employees. This is considered good faith notice as the WARN Act recognizes the tremendous limitations on the ability to communicate with employees in the event of a natural disaster.
If all employment records are destroyed, thereby preventing the employer from sending notification to the affected employees’ last known addresses, it can still comply with the WARN Act by posting a notice at the worksite:
• Indicating that the worksite will be closed or partially closed;
• Identifying the workers that are to be affected by the closure; and
• Explaining that individual notice was not possible due to the loss or destruction of employment records.
It is also a good idea to provide notice in the local newspaper(s). Additionally, be aware of state laws which may impose similar obligations.
9. Continue Employee Benefits and Provide Accommodations
In times of disaster, it is critical for employers to attempt to continue employees’ health and medical insurance benefits. In addition, an employer may be required to provide employees suffering from physical or emotional injures with reasonable accommodations which would enable them to continue their job duties and responsibilities. Reasonable accommodations should be provided unless it would create an undue hardship on the employer’s business operations.
10. Consider Providing Employees with Qualified Disaster Payments
Finally, consider providing needs-based cash payments to employees who are victims of qualified disasters, such as hurricanes, without income tax or payroll tax consequences.
Needs-based payments include payments to reimburse employees for:
• Reasonable and necessary personal, family or funeral expenses employees incur as a result of a natural disaster; and
• Reasonable and necessary expenses employees incur to repair their homes because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding a qualified disaster.
Employees do not have to substantiate their expenses to their employers, provided the amounts they receive are commensurate with the expenses incurred.