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This Is How To Prepare Your Workforce For A Natural Disaster

With Hurricane Irma following on Harvey’s heels, HR leaders recently took to Facebook to discuss how organizations can provide support and respond.

This Is How To Prepare Your Workforce For A Natural Disaster
[Photo: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Martha Nigrelle]

It was just weeks ago that residents of Texas and southwestern Louisiana were preparing for Hurricane Harvey’s impending arrival. Now the residents of Florida are awaiting Hurricane Irma’s landfall. As people take their own precautions–whether they intend to evacuate or ride it out–human resources professionals will need to manage their organizations’ emergency plans, keep employees updated with crucial information and support, and make sure business stays on track.

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Natural disasters can arrive unexpectedly or with merely a few days’ notice. As a resident of Louisiana, I’ve lived through Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav as well as the catastrophic flooding that drenched Baton Rouge in 31 inches of rain last summer. As an HR professional I’ve learned lessons each and every time.

Fortunately, so have my colleagues. The other evening, a conversation sprang up on the HR Open Source Facebook group, where over 4,200 HR and recruiting professionals from over 50 countries gather to share their ideas and experience. The community is an excellent source for ideas and suggestions, especially when faced with events of this magnitude. Here’s a checklist organizations can use to prepare, based on our discussion this week.

Share Your Plans And Emergency Resources Early

In anticipation of a storm arriving, HR leaders are often responsible for setting up communication plans and sharing information so that individual employees can prepare. For starters, Ryan Lloyd, HR Business Partner with Cox Communications in Baton Rouge, suggests sharing the following resources to all who may be affected:

Angela Smith, HR Director for a global software development company with headquarters in Miami, says that her team “sent the usual checklists, evacuation shelter info, evacuation maps, and contact information for various resources.” But Smith also pointed out that resources for what to do with pets is always appreciated; PetMD offers some useful guidelines on that front.

Make Sure You Can Contact Employees, And Vice Versa

Lloyd pointed out that it’s critical to encourage employees to update their contact info in the organization’s system to ensure up-to-date phone numbers and other pertinent details are on hand.

Nathan B. Levoit, VP of People at First Direct Lending, is not in the path of Irma himself but does have a team in Miami, so he’s been busy pulling a communication plan together and getting items into the hands of employees. In addition to distributing a phone tree and access to an 800-number, Levoit has also overseen the addition of a page to the company’s website displaying information for affected employees. He says employees have also been encouraged to like or follow the company’s Facebook page for updates, and to mark themselves “safe” during the storm.

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Plan For No Cell Service

While cell phone towers may go down and access to the internet or SMS capabilities may be affected, texting may provide one of the best options for staying in touch. Last week the Society for Human Resource Management ran an article highlighting the experiences of an HR leader in Houston before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. Among other things, her team utilized an SMS instant-messaging system that allowed them to notify employees about operations and other pertinent details.

Avi Singer, CEO and founder of showd.me, learned some lessons during Hurricane Sandy; his preparation for that event included “ensuring key employees have wireless cards/extended batteries for internet access . . .  getting support and backup in place from unaffected offices, and rescheduling interviews/meetings in advance.”

Extend Deadlines, Alert Vendors, And Pre-Schedule Remote Check-Ins

Business, of course, goes on in the rest of the world and deadlines still loom. Melissa Fairman, an HR professional in Cleveland, pointed out that “if you have any vendors outside the affected areas with employee deadlines you should start working with them to get an extension for employees.”

When she lived in another part of the country, in the path of a storm, Fairman’s organization worked with an out-of-state vendor that didn’t understand the need to extend the benefit open enrollment period due to a Category 1 hurricane. But, as Fairman successfully pointed out to the vendor, “no power or phones means people can’t sign up for benefits.”

I further suggest that leadership and operations teams pre-schedule call-in times and provide access to a conference line. In the aftermath of last year’s historic flooding in Baton Rouge, our operations team scheduled daily calls at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for leaders who were either back in the workplace or, in the case of quite a few, stranded at home by flood waters. The calls allowed us to effectively plan for business continuity and report on our efforts to check in with our 450 employees.

[Photo: TexasPixelPro/iStock]

Consider An Advance Payroll

Many of the activities HR teams will need to address in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster will, in some instances, be things that have been prepared for ahead of time. As employees get back in touch additional needs will be identified, but access to payroll funds and cash, as well as a sense of job security, are often uppermost in the minds of staff members.

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Franny Oxford, VP of HR for a privately held manufacturing company in Houston, has spent the last two weeks dealing with Hurricane Harvey and all that it brought to her city. In anticipation of the storm arriving, she proactively sent an HR staff member and a payroll staff member out of town to be sure payroll could be run even if the company’s building lost power. As Oxford pointed out, “that first paycheck after a storm like this is critical for employees.”

Levoit’s company, First Direct Lending, did a special payroll run so that automated clearinghouse (AHC) deposits of payroll checks occurred three days early so that employees could take out cash before Irma arrives later this week. Remember that if extreme power outages occur, not only will banks be closed but ATMs will probably not work either–cash is king!

Be Flexible With Attendance And PTO Policies

Employees who have been displaced from their homes or have evacuated entirely may be anxious about job continuity even as they’re struggling with basics like getting access to food, shelter, and clothing. Part of the communication prior to the weather event will ideally have provided employees with clarity around items such as pay continuity, use of PTO, or flexibility in the company’s attendance policies.

Levoit encouraged employees in Miami to put in leave requests, and his company has also discussed options around pay continuity internally. Dorothy Carter, a consultant with Clesi Burns, LLC, in Baton Rouge (where she relocated permanently from New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina), suggested automatically posting/paying PTO for employees who remain out of contact for several days.

As employees return to work, whenever that may be, they’ll still be dealing with numerous aftereffects. Providing consideration for additional time-off without penalty will be important to employees who must keep appointments with insurance adjustors, rebuild their homes, or find new living arrangements; this time may be with or without pay as appropriate and in alignment with the Fair Labor Standards Act for employers in the U.S.

Distribute Supplies From Your Office

Depending upon the destruction and clean-up needs, employees may need access to supplies and materials. Levoit, Carter, and I have all found value in purchasing supplies and having them on hand for free distribution to employees; this could include mops, mold cleaner, buckets, gloves, masks, flashlights, batteries, battery operated fans, ice, and water.

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In addition, Carter suggested providing supplies for employees who are caring for elderly parents or very young children, in which case diapers, formula, or Depends may be appreciated. Once the stores reopen the lines will be long, so if employees can make it to the workplace to acquire these supplies it will not only be a time-saver but also allow them to manage their cash flow.

Keep Providing Long-Term Support

Aaron Lintz, manager of recruiting software and systems at Snow Software in Florida, reminded us of the importance of making sure team members and their family members have access to the company’s Employee Assistance Program for ongoing support and to help people talk about stress, grief, or loss of any kind. We are, after all, in the business of HR–and that means remembering the people.


Robin Schooling is VP of human resources with Hollywood Casino in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She writes her own HR blog and curates content at the Carnival of HR blog.

A version of this article originally appeared on HROS and is adapted with permission.