Hurricanes can be devastating for everyone involved; Particularly those unlucky enough to be located in the “eye of the storm.” On an individual level, securing your home, loved ones, and personal effects as best you can (and then, of course, leaving the area during the storm) may be the best that you can do. Even then, the devastation that hurricanes sometimes wreak can leave thousands of people without power, water, food, or even shelter for days, weeks or even months. And while the personal toll hurricanes take on individual lives is often the media focus, there are countless secondary effects from such storms. For example, how would a business continue operations if a majority of their employees’ lives were wrecked by a hurricane? Can any business truly prepare for such a devastating occurrence?
A. Hurricane Summary
According to the South Florida Regional Planning Council, the official designated hurricane season runs from June 1st through November 30th each year. All hurricanes are dangerous and pose a threat of destruction, but some are more dangerous than others depending on storm surge, wind, rainfall and other factors. To better predict the destruction risks of an approaching hurricane, forecasters have divided hurricanes into five categories, with category 1 causing the least amount of damage and category 5 causing the most.
- Hurricane Categories
- Category 1 : Winds of 74-95 mph: Strong enough to cause damage to shrubbery, trees, and mobile homes.
- Category 2 : Winds of 96-110mph: Can blow down trees and cause damage to some roofing materials of buildings, windows and doors. Evacuation routes could be affected due to rising water. Strong enough to cause major damage to piers; marinas may flood and small crafts anchored in protected areas may be lost.
- Category 3: Winds of 111-130 mph: Can rip foliage from trees and blow down large trees. Damage is likely to roofing materials of buildings, windows and doors, and some structural damage to small buildings. Strong enough to destroy mobile homes; and bring coastal and low-lying inland flooding.
- Category 4: Winds of 131-155 mph: Shrubs, and trees and signs blown down. Extensive damage to roofing materials, windows and doors. Total destruction of roofs on small residences and mobile homes. Flooding and floating debris is prevalent.
- Category 5: Winds greater than 155 mph: The most deadly and destructive category. Complete roof failures and destruction of residences and industrial buildings; shattering of glass in windows and doors, along with dangerous storm surge levels and widespread flooding.
B. 2017 Hurricane Disasters
2017 was a particularly bad year for hurricanes in the United States, causing significant devastation to Texas, the Virgin Islands, Florida, and Puerto Rico.
- Hurricane Harvey
Category 4: With rainfall topping 50 inches in some areas, Harvey devastated a swath of Texas stretching from the Houston area into Louisiana. The whole city was virtually underwater. At least 77 people lost their life.
- Hurricane Irma
Category 5: Hurricane Irma was an extremely powerful and catastrophic Cape Verde-type hurricane, the strongest observed in the Atlantic since Wilma in 2005 in terms of maximum sustained winds. Approximately, 132 people died in Florida, Cuba, Turks and Caicos, and other affected areas.
- Hurricane Maria
Category 5: Hurricane Maria was regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica and caused catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, as well as being the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. More than 63 people died as a result.
C. Preparation is the Key
While it’s impossible to account for every disaster scenario, an employer’s response to a hurricane starts by preparing for it before it happens. Attention and effort beforehand can help mitigate the effects of a hurricane-related disruption to your business in the future. Here are five (5) tips recommended by The American Society of Safety Engineers (“ASSE”) to help your workplace prepare:
1. Develop a Comprehensive Plan. An effective hurricane survival plan should be written down and reviewed annually. For many companies, an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) is required by OSHA, so hurricane planning can be part of the EAP planning and review each year. The plan should address, among other things, policies and procedures for employee safety regarding hurricanes, business continuity and contingency plans in the face of damage to the business’s facilities or infrastructure, and procedures for dealing with displaced employees, customers, and vendors, etc.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) suggests that key features of an effective plan include:
- Identifying those conditions that will activate the plan;
- Setting out a chain of command during a disaster;
- Assigning emergency functions and identifying who will perform them;
- Write out specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits;
- Create a plan for accounting for personnel, customers and visitors; and
- Identify any additional equipment that may be needed for personnel.
2. Determine procedures and individual crisis management responsibilities. Identify which personnel are required to be on-site in the days surrounding a hurricane, as well as which personnel are essential to business function, whether required on-site or not. Be sure to communicate areas of accountability and responsibility for key personnel and how to perform their emergency-response duties effectively.
3. Coordinate in advance with others. Understand the hurricane response plans of other businesses in your area as well as police, fire department, hospitals, and utility companies. It is also helpful to communicate in advance with suppliers, shippers, and others with whom you regularly do business.
4. Prepare employees. Communicate your hurricane plan with your employees; ensure understanding of roles, responsibilities and expectations for everyone.
5. Review emergency plans annually. Assess changes in your business or to the community that may affect your hurricane response plan and make the necessary changes each year.
D. Employee Safety and Workers’ Compensation
Employers might think that OSHA would relax its standards during the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, but that is often not the case. Regardless of the circumstances, employers are required to make their workplaces safe for employees to conduct their work – even after a hurricane.
However, OSHA recognizes that creating a safe environment can be challenging for employers as clean up begins in the aftermath of a destructive storm. Therefore, the agency has established pages on its www.OSHA.gov website where employers can access various guidelines to specific workplace dangers likely associated with clean up and recovery, including flooding, electrical, fall protection, personal protective equipment, chain saws, mold, bloodborne pathogens and bacterial issues, tree trimming, trenching, and heat exposure. Employers should start with OSHA’s informative pages on Hurricane Preparedness and Response and Flood Preparedness and Response.
Employers should also not forget that employees who suffer physical injuries from a hurricane while at work, may be entitled to relief under the company’s workers’ compensation insurance. Obviously, injuries sustained at home or while not on duty are not compensable. But workers injured during the storm and while on duty should fill out a first report of injury and employers should submit it to their insurance carrier.
E. “Military Leave” for Employees Called to Aid the Relief Effort
Should a storm be serious enough for the federal government to mobilize the National Guard or other military units, it is very likely that any employees called to serve as part of the relief effort would be covered by the leave provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”). In addition to military personnel called up to serve in the federal response to hurricanes, the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act extended USERRA’s protections to certain federal emergency workers dispatched to assist with national disasters, including those employees performing as intermittent disaster response appointees upon activation of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), even if they are not otherwise members of the uniformed services.
F. Wage and Hour Issues
The most common wage and hour problem for employers in the aftermath of a hurricane is that their timekeeping or payroll systems are not operational, or time sheets were destroyed for the previous week before employees got paid. There is no easy solution, since the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) puts the onus on the employer to accurately pay employees for all their time worked. As a starting point, employers should ask employees to try and recreate (via handwritten note, if necessary) their time for any prior days or weeks for which they have not yet received payment. And then going forward (until timekeeping and payroll systems are restored), have all employees keep track of their hours on paper (or other means) and turn in their time to a designated person in the office. Unfortunately, the FLSA does not have a “disaster” exception that would allow employers to be late with payment to their employees or to waive overtime for employees who may have to work extra hours helping the company return to normal operations. All wages must still be paid on time and in the correct amounts to all company employees.
The Department of Labor provides recovery assistance for those affected by hurricanes through its Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program. Information about the program may be accessed directly through the DOL’s website: www.dol.gov/general/hurricane-recovery.
Recovery Assistance for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria – Asistencia para la Recuperación de los Huracanes Harvey, Irma y María
G. Takeaway for Employers
There are often no easy answers for employers trying to recover from natural disasters such as hurricanes. Early preparations, however, should be all employers’ primary focus – particularly for those employers that have offices or worksites in hurricane prone areas of the country.
C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.