As the Gulf Coast braces for Hurricane Irma, many Florida-based companies — including real estate agency Stiles Corporation — are preparing to implement their hurricane preparedness plans. Designed in large part to ease employees’ minds and keep them informed during emergencies, the plans often put a heavy emphasis on benefits-related concerns, including employee communications, time-off management and programs that provide assistance to employees during times of disaster.
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.
“We have a good communications system to connect with associates and tell them the status of headquarters and projects,” explains George Boué, vice president of human resources at Stiles.
This week, Stiles employees have received consistent email communications as a way to manage their anxiety about the storm. Rather than focusing at work, employees would be checking the TVs in the offices for the latest update on Hurricane Irma’s path, Boué says. The emails gave workers a sense of relief that there was an emergency plan in place so they could focus on the task at hand.
“You’re trying to ensure people’s safety, but at the same time you want to manage the lack of productivity,” says Boué. “The main thing is letting people know that there is a cross-divisional group in management that’s looking at the business.”
In light of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, trying to ease workers’ fears and keep them as informed as possible is especially vital, Boué says. “What we saw in Houston has shaken people up,” he says. “There’s definitely anxiety.”
During emergency situations like Hurricane Irma, Stiles has a “calling tree” in place, where an employee might call three employees, and those three employees each call another three people, to account for its staff.
There is also a 411-style website available to employees for consistent notifications and updates about both the storm and the state of the business’ operations, he says. Employees will get notifications to remind them to stock up on water and gasoline, for example, or they will receive an update on how the storm is progressing.
Time off and flexibility also is a critical component of Stiles’ plan.
Only essential employees came into work Thursday, and operations closed Friday in anticipation of the hurricane, Boué says.
In the aftermath, employees might work remotely if they can’t physically get to the office due to the hurricane’s damage, or they may opt to take paid time off. If the business is completely shut down and employees cannot work remotely or in the offices, they might need to request an advance on their salary in the meantime.
While many companies might ask employees to use their paid time off for inclement weather or give them the opportunity to work from home, some companies in Florida build time off into their bottom line for cases like Hurricane Irma, he explains.
“You also have to consider [building PTO for hurricanes into the budget] if you haven’t thought about that ahead of time,” Boué says. “It depends on how many employees you have. There is a bottom-line effect of giving a lot of people the time off.”
Employee assistance programs also can help employers with both the anticipation of the storm and its aftermath, says Boué.
ComPsych, the world’s largest employee assistance provider that 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. It also offers a disaster plan to its clients, which can relieve anxiety and reduce reactionary responses to the storm, says ComPsych CEO Richard Chaifetz.
The most important thing in times of disaster, Boué says, is giving employees the sense that the company is on top of any work-related concerns that arise.
“We have our own anxiety about our properties and houses, and we have to put aside our own feelings about it because we have to look at the greater good,” says Boué. “Calmer heads have to prevail at the senior management level. I hope we convey that sentiment.”
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