As Hurricane Harvey brings historic flooding to Texas, industry experts say employers have a very important role: to communicate benefits and other assistance to affected employees.
In the coming days and subsequent months, employers need to be in contact with employees about the status of their headquarters and projects, as well as the benefits and resources that are available to them. Experts say repetitive communication is essential for affected employees.
“The most important thing to communicate is what the employers are doing for the employees and the community,” says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health. “First of all, that help is on the way.”
Employers also are going to have to be flexible, she says. Employees need to know if they are expected to come into the workplace, and if they can’t, whether they can work remotely. Schools are likely to be closed, and relatives might have been relocated from nursing homes or hospitals to shelters. Employees might need access to childcare or eldercare, and companies should be in constant communication to relay those benefits, Heinen explains.
Another vital resource for workers in a time of crisis is the employee assistance program. Not only can employees use an EAP during the storm and in its aftermath, but EAP providers also can supply resources that teach employers how to communicate in a supportive manner, says Rachel Schacht, senior analyst at the National Business Group on Health.
“Some people will be experiencing stress and PTSD,” she says. “There may be a need for employers to take a different approach to things.”
Companies also should reach out to their EAP providers if those representatives haven’t already connected with them, experts suggest.
“We had a number of calls prior to the anticipation of the storm,” says Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, the world’s largest employee assistance provider. “It’s just been overwhelming. We’re getting calls from people focused on [everything from] the very basic essentials to concerns about safety and their loved ones.”
ComPsych, which covers 90 million employees globally, has a 24-hour call center to help employees navigate claims and find additional resources, such as mental health counselors, legal assistance and eldercare services. Its representatives are already in Corpus Christi and other nearby cities, gathering “employees together though employers to address the future and how their companies are going to deal with the devastation,” Chaifetz says.
Prior to the storm, ComPsych distributed a disaster plan to its clients to help keep relief efforts organized and streamlined. Chaifetz says other companies that aren’t yet clients have reached out for help.
“It relieves a lot of anxiety, reduces a lot of reactionary response,” Chaifetz says of the disaster plan. “It gives the employees the sense that management is on top of the situation.”
Lessons in disaster
For many employers in Texas, Harvey is their first time dealing with a natural disaster on such an epic scale. Those companies can take a cue from employers in hurricane-prone areas like Miami, where employers rely on a preparedness program to keep employees in the know and focused on the continuation of business.
“We anticipate it. It’s part of everyday life down here,” says George Boué, a SHRM member and vice president of human resources at Stiles Corporation, a Fort Lauderdale-based real estate agency. “It’s easier for us to think about what we can do. I don’t think there’s many companies [in Texas] that might have thought about flooding. If they thought about it, and they have a hurricane preparedness plan, it makes it easier for them to figure out how [to help employees].”
Boué notes that the toughest part about a hurricane preparedness plan is communication efforts, which can be stymied by a lack of electricity or cell service.
“Most of these companies have the ability to connect with their associates via mobile phone,” he says. “If the associates are able to get onto the company website, [employers] can also post on their website.”
Still, employers have to be quick on their feet, realizing that a storm could impact many aspects of their job.
“The normal systems and procedures go out the window,” says David Barron, member with law firm Cozen O’Connor’s Houston office. “You have all these different scenarios where HR might not have a playbook.”
Barron notes that most companies have sophisticated systems to manage payroll, even if employees aren’t able to physically enter their workplace. Exempt employees require full pay, as long as they worked for most of the week, he says; non-exempt employees should only be paid for the hours they worked, including overtime if applicable.
NBGH’s Heinen emphasizes that, despite operations being shut down, employers can be helpful to employees by offering “continuous pay to the greatest extent possible.”
Paid time off might also be used in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and employers have a variety of options to give their employees the time they need to take care of their families or homes, Heinen says.
Employers can advance employees’ sick days or vacation, but Boué notes that employers need to be understanding and as generous as possible.
“They need flexibility; they need understanding,” he says. “Their lives have been uprooted.”
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