As Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have demonstrated, hurricanes and other natural disasters can devastate people’s homes and livelihoods. However, while there is no way to prevent the unpredictable assault of these storms, technological advances and education now allow us to prepare for such events and minimize the harm to life and property.
Employers should especially take heed after being informed of an impending hurricane since they are often tasked with taking measures to not only protect their personal belongings and family but their workplaces and employees as well.
In fact, it is always important to remember that the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. As a result, it is prudent to consider ways to ensure that employer property is protected and employees are kept informed and safe before and during a hurricane.
The following are four steps an employer should take to prepare its workplace for a hurricane:
- Implement an Emergency Action Plan
Developing and implementing an emergency action plan (EAP) is always a good way to get a handle on what needs to be done in the event of an impending hurricane. First, the EAP should be specifically suited to address a hurricane or other weather event that is likely to affect the workplace in that specific locale. For instance, an employer in Oregon may not worry about planning for a hurricane, while one in Louisiana would. An EAP should, however, always be flexible in order to address any type of emergency, natural or not, that might confront the workplace.
In order to carry out the purpose of the EAP, a team consisting of various members of management, HR, security, in-house counsel, local law enforcement and property managers should be created. In addition, an effective EAP should include the following:
- Emergency reporting procedures;
- Emergency evacuation plans, escape routes and designated safe areas;
- Employer contact information;
- Contact and location information of area hospitals;
- An emergency communications policy, e.g., channels on how to receive updated status reports;
- Notification procedures;
- Procedures for notifying employees’ family members or emergency contacts; and
- Procedures for addressing the media.
- Prepare Employees for the Hurricane
Despite the above, no policy or memo can adequately prepare employees for the realities of a natural disaster, including hurricanes. As a result, it is important to consider the practical aspects of preparing staff, equipment and property for such an event. For example, if you have employees that work outside, educate them on how to safeguard equipment as well as themselves against strong wind gusts and heavy rain. Similarly, if employees drive as part of their job duties, ensure that they have working windshield wipers and an adequate supply of gasoline for their vehicles.
Also, employees should be trained on where to go and how to shelter in place in the event that they are present in the workplace during a hurricane. You should ensure that there is sufficient water, food and other supplies for staff required to remain on employer property.
- Remember Wage and Hour Issues
In times when the workplace is closed due to a hurricane, it is always critical to remember that wage and hour issues come into play. For example, do employees still need to be paid during a work closure? In most cases, that is a complicated question to answer. To do so, several factors should be considered:
- Is the employee exempt or nonexempt under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state wage and hour laws?
- How long was the workplace closed?
- Has the employee(s) worked remotely (telecommuted) or otherwise performed any work functions from home?
In addition, you should take into account any employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements that may require that employees be paid in these situations, even if the FLSA or state law does not require it. However, regardless of legal or contractual requirements, it would be a great show of goodwill, as well as a way to boost morale and retention, to pay employees during these difficult times.
- Prepare for the Aftermath
One can never anticipate the devastation left in a hurricane’s wake. However, there are ways to prepare for the disruption a hurricane may have on the workplace and its business functions. For instance, review your emergency response procedures to ensure they are current and sufficient to respond to an impending storm. If not, take the opportunity to update them and make improvements.
It is also important to realize that you may need to:
- Report workplace fatalities and other injuries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration;
- Communicate with a deceased employee’s family, including expressing condolences, returning the employee’s personal belongings and providing final paychecks and applicable benefits;
- Provide injured employees with leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or with reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act; and
- Provide traumatized employees with services through an employee assistance program.
In addition, remember that your employees may have other responsibilities to address during a hurricane other than their primary job. For instance, some employees may be members of the National Guard or are volunteer emergency responders who, in times of crisis, may be called to serve and assist in rescue and recovery efforts. If so, they may be entitled to leave from their employment.