Robin Schooling is VP of Human Resources with Hollywood Casino in Baton Rouge, LA and is on a mission to make organizations better by making HR better. She speaks at events, loves to pontificate on webinars, writes an HR blog, and herds cats over at the Carnival of HR. She has been known to search out the perfect French 75 and is a fervent and unapologetic fan of the New Orleans Saints.

Just a few short weeks ago residents of Texas and southwestern Louisiana were preparing for Hurricane Harvey’s impending arrival; today the residents of Florida are awaiting Hurricane Irma. As people take precautions, whether they intend to evacuate or ride it out, human resources professionals are often responsible for managing key elements of their organization’s emergency/disaster plans and ensuring that employees have access to information and support all while managing the continuity challenges faced by the business.

These types of events can take many forms and may arrive unexpectedly or with merely a few day’s notice; crippling snow or ice storms, wildfires, tornados, earthquakes and devastating floods are some of the weather events that not only disrupt individual’s lives but often throw a business into disarray for a brief, or sometimes extended, period.

As a resident of Louisiana I’ve lived through Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav (when we lost power for multiple days but sustained no damage) as well as the catastrophic flooding that hit Baton Rouge in August 2016 when 31 inches of rain fell in 15 hours and more than one hundred thousand homes were damaged. As an HR professional I’ve learned lessons each and every time.   

The other evening, as people in Florida began to prepare for the certainty of Irma’s impact on the Sunshine State, a conversation sprang up on the HROS Facebook Group where over 4,200 HR and Recruiting professionals from over 50 countries gather to share their ideas and experience. Members of the community relish the sharing of Sparks (brief one-page summaries to share actionable learnings) and case studies with details around how they approached a challenge as well as the results, pitfalls and lessons learned. More frequently though, when HR leaders need to take immediate action, the HROS community – and the shared intellect – is an excellent source for ideas and suggestions.

The conversation that took place on Facebook, and the willingness of community members to share advice and ideas, made us want to capture this information as a resource for HR and business leaders who may find themselves facing an event of this magnitude.

Storm/Event Preparation

In anticipation of a storm arriving, HR leaders are often responsible for setting up communication plans and sharing information so that individual employees can prepare.  Ryan Lloyd, HR Business Partner with Cox Communications in Baton Rouge, LA suggests sharing the following resources to all who may be affected:

·      National Hurricane Center: Hurricane Preparedness

·      Department of Homeland Security – Build a Kit (and other prep)

Angela Smith, HR Director for a global software development company with headquarters in Miami, says that her team ”... sent the usual checklists, evacuation shelter info, evacuation maps, and contact information for various resources.”  Smith also stated that resources for what to do with pets is always appreciated by those who may be evacuating or staying in place.

Lloyd pointed out that it’s critical to encourage employees to update contact info in the organization’s HRIS to ensure up-to-date phone numbers and other pertinent details are on hand.

Nathan B. Levoit, VP of People with First Direct Lending is not in the path of Irma himself but does have a team in Miami and he’s been busy pulling a communication plan together and getting items into the hands of employees. In addition to distributing a phone tree and access to an 800 number, he has also overseen the addition of a page to the company website where information for affected employees can be loaded. Employees have also been encouraged to like/follow the company’s Facebook page for updates and to mark themselves “safe” during the storm.

While cell phone towers may go down and access to the internet or SMS capabilities may be affected, texting may provide one of the best options for staying in touch. Last week SHRM ran an article highlighting the experiences of an HR leader in Houston before, during and after Hurricane Harvey. Among other things, her team utilized an SMS instant messaging system which allowed them to notify employees about operations and other pertinent details.  

Avi Singer, CEO/Founder of showd.me, learned some lessons during Hurricane Sandy; his preparation for that event included “ensuring key employees have wireless cards/extended batteries for internet access, ... getting support and backup in place from unaffected offices, and rescheduling interviews/meetings in advance.”

Business, of course, goes on in the rest of the world and deadlines still loom. Melissa Fairman, an HR professional in Cleveland, OH pointed out that “if you have any vendors outside the affected areas with employee deadlines you should start working with them to get an extension for employees.” When she lived in another part of the country, in the path of a storm, her organization worked with an out-of-state vendor who didn’t understand the need to extend the benefit open enrollment period due to a Category 1 hurricane. But, as Melissa successfully pointed out to them, “no power or phones means people can't sign up for benefits.”

I further suggest that leadership and operations teams pre-schedule call-in times and provide access to a conference line. In the aftermath of last year’s historic flooding in Baton Rouge our operations team scheduled daily calls at 10 AM and 4 PM for leaders who were either back in the workplace or, in the case of quite a few, stranded at home by flood waters. The calls allowed us to effectively plan for business continuity and report on our efforts to check-in and connect with our 450 employees.

The Aftermath

Many of the activities to be focused on in the immediate aftermath of the storm will, in some instances, be things that have been prepared for ahead of time. As employees get back in touch additional needs will be identified but access to payroll funds and cash, as well as a sense of job security, are often uppermost in the minds of staff members.

Franny Oxford, VP of HR for a privately held manufacturing company in Houston has spent the last two weeks dealing with Hurricane Harvey and all that it brought to her city. In anticipation of the storm arriving, she proactively sent an HR staff member and a payroll staff member out of town to be sure payroll could be run even if the company’s building lost power. As Oxford pointed out “that first paycheck after a storm like this is critical for employees.”

Levoit’s company First Direct Lending did a special payroll run so that ACH deposits of payroll checks occurred 3 days early so that employees could take out cash before Irma arrives later this week.  Remember  that if extreme power outages occur not only will banks be closed but ATMs will probably not work either – cash is king!

Employees who have been displaced from their homes or have evacuated entirely may be anxious about job continuity even as they’re struggling with basics like getting access to food, shelter and clothing. Part of the communication prior to the weather event will, ideally, have provided employees with clarity around items such as pay continuity, use of PTO or flexibility in alignment with company attendance policies.  Levoit encouraged employees in Miami to put in leave requests and his company also, internally, has discussed options around pay continuity. Dorothy Carter, Consultant with Clesi Burns, LLC in Baton Rouge, LA who experienced Hurricane Katrina (which led to her permanent relocation from New Orleans to Baton Rouge) suggested automatically posting/paying PTO for employees who remain out of contact for several days.

Depending upon the destruction and clean-up needs, employees may need access to supplies and materials. Levoit, Carter and I have all found value in purchasing supplies and having them on hand for free distribution to employees; this could include mops, mold cleaner, buckets, gloves, masks, flashlights, batteries, battery operated fans, ice, and water. In addition, Carter suggested providing supplies for employees who are caring for elderly parents or very young children in which case diapers, formula or Depends may be appreciated. Once the stores re-open the lines will be long so if employees can make it to the workplace to acquire these supplies it will not only be a time-saver but also allow them to manage their cash flow.

As employees return to work, whenever that may be, they will still be dealing with numerous after-effects. Providing consideration for additional time-off without penalty will be important to employees who must keep appointments with insurance adjustors, rebuild their homes or find new living arrangements; this time may be with or without pay as appropriate and in alignment with the FLSA for employers in the US.

Aaron Lintz, Manager of Recruiting Software and Systems at Snow Software in Florida reminded us of the importance of making sure team members and their family members have access to the company’s Employee Assistance Program for ongoing support and to help people talk about stress, grief or loss of any kind.  We are, after all, in the business of HR...and that means remembering the people.

Stay safe and stay strong everyone – the human spirit is resilient!

What ideas do YOU have to share? Help us build out this resource by adding your comments below.

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