Dear employers in the 48 states that did not have recent hurricanes: If you don’t have an HR crisis plan, learn from Texas and Florida employers who’ve weathered a crisis to put your plans in place. Emergencies can happen at any time, weather-related or not.

When a catastrophe looms, employees are often anxious, confused and uncertain about their workplace rights and responsibilities. And in cases such as the recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas where evacuations were mandated, employees worried about whether they could lose their job  and whether or not they’d get paid. In fact, many employers are uncertain about legal compliance around emergency issues, too, and wind up creating policies on the fly.

During Florida events, critics on social media were quick to throw stones about the poor judgement of people who opted to stay in place rather than comply with mandatory evacuation. The reality is that some employees feel they have no choice, fearing job loss if they do not show up for work. Or they can’t afford to go without the pay. On Saturday as the Miami area awaited Hurricane Irma, reporters interviewed many people who had not evacuated as to their reasons. Many said they had to work through Friday and by then, options were limited: Gas was no longer available and shelters were filled. Plus, some employees have a role to play in public safety: police, firefighters, medical staff, infrastructure workers and government employees, for example.

As for the question of whether or not an employee could be fired for evacuating, essentially, yes, that could occur:

“The answer to that question, in many cases, is that they can indeed be fired. Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife program at Harvard Law School and a former Department of Labor employee, says a major storm, even one that yields a state of emergency, doesn’t suspend labor laws. This means that laws that protect workers’ pay still stand, but because in Florida, workers are employed at-will, it also means that (barring a collective-bargaining agreement or contract stating otherwise) workers can still be fired for their absence. “You can be fired for a good reason [or] a bad reason—as long as it’s not an unlawful reason, which is usually discrimination,” Block says.”

Some legal practitioners think this right to terminate in such a scenario may not be as iron-clad as it seems, however.  Such a requirement pits the employer against the state, and the legal imperative to evacuate a disaster area might trump any other consideration in a court of law – or certainly in the court of public opinion.

Whether employers treat their staff well or poorly can reverberate in real life and online communities, which can have an effect on recruitment and retention. A benevolent employer will earn loyalty. See 14 People In Florida Share How Their Employers Are Handling Hurricane Irma Preparation for conversations that occurred in online message boards.

  • On the ugly side, some employees reported being told that evacuation might be viewed as job abandonment; other employees reported that rather than being more flexible, their employers expected them to come in early or stay late. One employer even suggested that to prevent missing work, employees might pack an overnight bag and bring children in to work with them.
  • On the “better angels” side of the ledger, one employee raved about an employer who was finding safe evacuation accommodations for employees that would be fully paid. Another gave two paid days off and issued paychecks early so employees would have money for hurricane preparations. Others got “catastrophe pay” for days their employer would be closed. Several reported sincere caring on the part of their employers

For a good case history, see How one Florida employer is preparing for Hurricane Irma.

“At Stiles, which has 325 employees, a big part of the plan is robust employee communications. That includes everything from providing workers with safety tips and updates about the office to informing them about time off and benefits they might utilize during a natural disaster.”

There are many issues that employers and HR departments must consider in an emergency or a weather-related catastrophe: better to have those policies and procedures thought out in advance. While not every eventuality can be considered, an emergency plan that outlines communication procedures and benefit issues will leave less to chance.

Here are a variety of articles from employment law attorneys and HR experts that will help inform your emergency planning:

Plan for post-crisis, too – and don’t forget your EAP!

Advance prep is only one element in your plan – you should also be preparing for post-crisis support for your employees.

Post catastrophe, many people experience immediate gratitude for survival, but for those who were dispossessed, feelings of loss often quickly follow. Replaying trauma and fear, sadness, anxiety, feeling out of control, grief and depression are also fairly common after effects. Even those who did not suffer direct personal loss often experience guilt, anxiety, stress, sadness and fear after a catastrophic event. As an employer, you can offer flexible policies and support. One of the primary sources of help should be your employee assistance program for post-trauma and ongoing counseling, as well as for practical resources to help in the recovery process, such as financial coaching, stress coaching, parent and family help, and more.

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