2017 has brought with it a surge of dangerous and destructive natural disasters, including hurricane titans Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as fierce wildfires on the west coast. If you or your family and friends have been impacted, our thoughts are with you during this challenging time.
These natural disasters have proven to be very confusing and difficult for leave of absence managers nationwide. That’s why we’ve put together a few suggestions for preparing your organization for a natural disaster, and to manage your leave program with maximum compassion and efficiency throughout.
1. Exercise Compassion
First and foremost, during a natural disaster your leave management program should exercise compassion, empathy and understanding. This is a very difficult time for your employees. Some could be suffering trauma and anxiety, while others may need to take time to care for their family members. Don’t be the barrier that is making employees choose between protecting themselves and their families, or coming to work.
2. Don't Disobey Evacuation Orders
Along the same lines, punishing or threatening employees who wish to evacuate is not the way to go. Messing with a mandatory evacuation order could be tremendously dangerous for you and your employees, and could also put your employees in a difficult situation.
If you do dismiss someone for fleeing due to a hurricane, this will almost certainly significantly harm your company’s reputation.
3. Encourage Employees To Help Each Other
Check in with your employees in a group setting upon everyone’s return to work to see how everyone has been affected. Encourage them to help out one another in the ways that they can, depending on how each has been affected. Maybe one person has lost power, while another is suffering from a flood in their home.
4. Consider FMLA & Other Leave Laws
Preparing your organization for a natural disaster means also considering leave legislation. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not require employees to be given time off for natural disasters, it does protect individuals from illnesses incurred as a result. For example, if an individual suffers from anxiety that flares up as a result of trauma of a natural disaster, that could potentially qualify them for FMLA. Similarly if the employee must aid a family member (who is part of their FMLA coverage), who is suffering from an injury or illness due to a natural disaster. Along the same line, consider any Americans with Disabilities (ADA) qualifying impairments, should they arise.
One area that employers have especially struggled with in the wake of these hurricanes, is knowing what counts as FMLA during the disaster itself. Can time missed due to a hurricane count as FMLA if the employee is out on leave? Generally it comes down to the amount of time that the business is closed for:
- If the business closes for a week or more due to a storm, these days do not count against the employee’s FMLA allotment
- If an employee is on FMLA leave (say, for one week), and a storm causes a business to close for one or more days during that week, this whole week would still count against the FMLA allotment
Another area to consider when it comes to leave during a hurricane or natural disaster is if you have any employees who are emergency services organization members (such as the National Guard or Army Reserve). In this case, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 prohibits employers from discharging those which need to take leave for disaster relief services. In fact, the FMLA was amended by the National Defense Authorization Act to extend up to 12 weeks of FMLA for the spouse, child or parent of uniformed service member called to active duty. Some states also have additional leave laws for disaster and emergency services, so be mindful of these laws and obligations. Additionally many states offer specific protections to emergency services volunteers during disasters that allow them to support the full time services where they exist, and to provide these services where full time EMS do not exist.
5. Be Prepared
At the end of the day, natural disasters are unpredictable and unavoidable. That’s why it’s absolutely essential to mitigate against the impact on your organization.
Start by having an emergency response plan and ensure that management and department leaders know their individual roles, should disaster strike. Within that plan, be sure to also include a communications plan, which outlines your key stakeholders who will need information should a disaster occur.
There are also resources that you can share with your employees in order to prepare them for a disaster. Here are a few helpful resource links:
- Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM): Disaster Preparedness Checklist, for Employees
- National Hurricane Center: Hurricane Preparedness
- American Red Cross: Guides for Preparing for Emergencies
- Federal Emergency Management Agency: How To Prepare For A Wildfire
These are just a few pieces of advice to help you prepare for difficult situations. From everyone here at Leave Genius, our thoughts are with everyone impacted by the natural disasters and their effects.