Hurricane Harvey has left many devastated. In preparation for upcoming storms that may be visiting Florida, such as Hurricane Irma, it is important to take these situations seriously and prepare not only yourself, but your business as well.
Those of us who have lived in Florida for any length of time are well aware that hurricane season begins June 1 and doesn’t end until November 30. For some of us, that means making sure we’re ready for a disaster and have stocked up on flashlights, batteries and water. But for those of us who manage businesses, we have to think well beyond the “creature comforts” to make sure our disaster readiness plan is in place so that businesses remain operational or are closed for as short a period of time as possible when hurricane hits.
Tips to prepare your business for the next natural disaster
- Batten down the hatches. Before the weather forecasters even hint that there’s a tropical storm developing, it’s a good idea to take a walk through your facility to determine what needs to be done to secure and protect equipment. For example, when we know a hurricane is imminent but before we close to wait out the hurricane, do we want to unplug computers and monitors, wrap them in plastic and set them on a desk or shelf in case our facility becomes flooded? And speaking of computers, do we have a mechanism for our server to be backed up to a remote location so that if the storm destroys our facility, we can easily retrieve our business records so that we can continue operations?
Additionally, it’s a good idea to plan how we’re going to protect windows and doors from the elements. Do we have storm shutters that can be installed on windows or do we need to purchase plywood and nails to place over our windows to protect them from breakage?
Does the nature of our operations require a skeleton crew to remain onsite throughout the storm? If so, what equipment, bedding, food, etc. do we need to bring in for that crew’s use while the storm is raging?
- Keeping employees in the loop. Once a tropical storm develops into a hurricane, the weather forecasters typically have a good idea of when the storm is likely to hit. The company at that point can decide when it will send employees home and secure its facilities until the storm passes. Many organizations use the closure of local schools to determine when they will shut down operations. Once that decision is made, employees need to be notified. Depending on the organization, you may rely on supervisors to inform employees of the decision to close or you may have a policy of requiring employees to check on the status of whether or not the company is closing by dialing a special phone number to listen to a recorded message regarding your decision.
- What does our policy say? Employers need to decide in advance how they will communicate with employees, whether or not they will allow employees to work from home, allowing flexible work schedules after the storm to accommodate employee’s whose homes may have been damaged, whether or not employees will be compensated for missing work, etc.
- Communicating with employees after the storm. Once the storm passes, companies need a mechanism to let employees know that the business is open. Many companies develop call trees…requiring supervisors to contact the employees who report directly to them to notify them of the business reopening.
- Recovering from the aftermath. Power outages, strong winds and flooding can damage our facilities. Companies need to think about continuity of operations now…well before a disaster hits. Some items to consider:
- Alternative facilities should the current building be damaged;
- Back up computer systems to a remote location to ensure we can access our important data should our servers be destroyed;
- Scope out alternative sources of supplies should our current vendors be impacted by the storm;
- Customers cancelling orders because their facilities have been damaged and they no longer need your product at this time; and
- Helping our employees and community recover from the damage
- Legal issues. We have to take into consideration laws that may apply to our specific situation when we re-open after the storm.
- Fair Labor Standards Act – While we are not obligated to pay our non-exempt employees for absences due to closing because of the storm, we are required to pay our exempt employees for those days that our facilities may be closed if it amount to less than one week. Not paying exempt employees for this time could result in losing their exempt status.
- Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA) – OSHA requires that employers provide employees with safe environments in which to work. Hurricanes and their aftermath can create electrical hazards, slips & falls, automobile accidents, injuries from flying objects, etc. Companies are obligated to keep employees as safe as possible if they encounter these types of hazardous conditions. “OSHA’s Hurricane eMatrix outlines the activities most commonly performed during hurricane response and recovery work and provides detailed information about the hazards associated with those activities. The eMatrix is designed to help employers make decisions to protect workers and offers recommendations for personal protective equipment, safe work practices, and precautions for each activity.”
- Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – Employees may be entitled to FMLA for serious health conditions caused by the disaster.
- Uniformed Services Employment & Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) – Employees who are members of the National Guard or reserve may be called to active duty to aid in providing disaster relief to areas affected by the hurricane. In such cases, you have to permit the employee the time off to perform this duty and you cannot terminate him/her or deny any benefit of employment because of service in the military or National Guard. Although USERRA generally requires the employee to provide notice to you when they are called to active duty, in the case of a natural disaster, that notice may be very short.
- ERISA & COBRA – If the natural disaster causes your facility to close for a period of time in order to rebuild, the company has to decide whether or not it will continue insurance benefits for employees. If the employer decides to continue benefits, they should contact their insurance providers to find out how and to what extent the insurances (life, health, etc.) can be maintained. If the employer chooses to maintain health insurance benefits yet has employees who are unable to continue working a sufficient number of hours to remain on the plan, the employer must notify those individuals of their rights to continue health insurance under COBRA.
This is just a summary of things to think about when preparing for hurricane season. Ideally, your emergency plans will identify specific individuals in the organization who will be responsible for different facets of securing your facilities and people and recovery from the storm.
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