Taking Care of Your Employees After A Natural Disaster

Employers along the Texas Gulf Coast are trying to determine how best to help their employees in the emergency that is the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As business owners and managers, we have the responsibility to try to take care of our most important business resources–our human resources–in the face of catastrophe.

While lots of websites and plans are in place telling a business about stocking emergency supplies, sheltering in place and creating evacuation plans, there are fewer guides for what to do for your employees in the long days and weeks afterwards.

After any natural disaster, whether it is a hurricane on the Texas Coast or a tornado or blizzard in the Texas Panhandle, you are going to first need to check on the well-being of your employees. For that reason, you need to keep updated phone records and emergency contact information for your employees in a safe place, preferably electronically so that you can access it from any location.

Organize a group text, a telephone tree or a call-in phone number so you can determine where each employee is, if each employee is physically okay, and whether the employee will be able to report to work. Don’t assume that just because you can get the business open that you will have employees to work in it.

Then you need to worry about money, because your employees certainly are worrying about it. According to a large survey in 2016 by GoBankingRates.com, half of all Americans have less than $1000 in their savings account. Even more sadly, 34% had no savings at all.

In addition, 60% of workers in America are paid by the hour and federal law only requires employers to pay an employee for hours actually worked. So being away from work even for a day or two can have devastating financial consequences for many employees.

Some will brave any conditions to make sure they don’t risk losing a day of pay or losing their job. The New York Times illustrated this in a story about the first day after Houston started getting the four feet of rain that Hurricane Harvey eventually dropped on that city.

Gloria Maria Quintanilla appeared as a speck on the horizon, wading through waist-high waters in the middle of the road with a sack thrust over one shoulder and an umbrella perched on the other. Ms. Quintanilla, 60, seemed to epitomize Houston’s work ethic, its resolve and its shock.

“I worked at the hotel up there,” she said when a reporter approached. As she walked, she explained that she was an immigrant from El Salvador, here since 1982. She makes $10 an hour washing and ironing sheets and towels at the Doubletree.

She had started the journey from home more than an hour before.

“It was my day to work, and I’m a very responsible person,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I had no idea it was going to be like this.”

The large majority of your hourly employees need to work, want to work and want to fairly earn their pay. However, when their homes are underwater or destroyed in a tornado, they may need extra help. Even if you don’t normally provide salary advances or employee loans, in times of natural disasters, you may need to bend the rules and allow those.

As to exempt (usually salaried) employees, you must follow the Fair Labor Standards Act rules for paying them their entire weekly salary if they work any time during the workweek. You can only deduct pay from an exempt employee’s check if the employee is absent for personal reasons other than sickness or disability.  If the business is closed due to inclement weather, you must pay the exempt employee for those days.

However, if the business is open but the exempt employee cannot get to work, that is considered an absence for personal reasons other than sickness or disability, so you can dock the salary for that absence. Of course, it is legal to and many employers desire to pay the whole salary out of compassion during a catastrophe like Hurricane Harvey.

On the other hand, it may be that your business is damaged from the catastrophe and/or is now in dire financial straits, so that helping your employees out financially is the last thing you can handle. If that is the case, it is a kindness to lay off your employees as soon as possible so that they can start collecting Texas unemployment. That way, each employee will at least have between $66 and $493 per week coming in to keep them alive.

Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to get your business open and your employees back to work, you cannot expect normalcy to return quickly. You have to consider the long-term emotional and financial health of your employees. If you can help your employees with this, your workplace may return to productivity and prosperity sooner.

You may want to consider providing spiritual or emotional counseling and/or financial consulting for your employees. Additionally, insurance, FEMA, building codes, contractors, and creditors are all headaches that your employees may be facing. You, other members of your management team or people within your networks may have expertise in these areas that could benefit a confused or overwhelmed employee. Helping your employees to navigate these choppy waters will hasten the time that your employees and your business can put the disaster in the past.

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