Scott F. Cooper
There is an old saying that natural disasters bring out the worst in nature and the best in people. As Hurricane Harvey has shown us, massive devastation is often followed by extraordinary human achievements.
As conditions return to normal in Texas and Louisiana, there are some legal and practical things employers should keep in mind to avoid making an already bad situation worse. These six tips apply just about any time Mother Nature unleashes her fury, including snow, ice, and fire.
- There Is No Such Thing as Volunteering for the Company. Following a disaster, many employees will step up and offer to do whatever they can to help. It is important that employers remember that there is no such thing as “charity to the company.” If hourly employees perform service for the company, they must be paid. There is no “charitable exception” rule even if hourly employees are working on projects that are not their normal jobs. A line cook that helps nail boards over windows to stop hurricane winds or cleans up after water recedes from the restaurant is still working for the company and must be paid. The obligation remains on the employer to keep track of hours worked and make payroll. Conversely, if the company shuts down to get through the disaster, it cannot dock the pay of exempt employees.
- Make Sure Employees Stay Safe. One of the key problems after a storm is people return to familiar places and discover them in unsafe and disrupted conditions. This can be traumatic. Employees should not assume that just because they do not see danger, it is not there. Harmless looking piles from a storm runoff may contain sharp-edged metal, broken glass, chemicals and other forms of waste. One of the most frequent causes of fatalities is electricity. Employees must not assume that machines and electric lines are off until they have been tested. Employees should never assume that structures are safe or that furniture has not been damaged until after proper testing.
- Make Sure Your Employees Don’t Overdo It. In an effort to be helpful, many employees will take on projects that are not their normal job and beyond their abilities or fitness level. Many will get caught up in the moment and try to keep pace with more fit co-workers. It is important that employees not get hurt doing things beyond their physical capabilities. Back to point number 1: they are working for the company. Management can and should step in to make sure people are not working in dangerous conditions, overexerting themselves or getting dehydrated. An employee is a “team player,” even if needing to back off due to personal abilities or limitations.
- Don’t Send Employees into Harmful Situations. Most companies will always bring in outside experts to do dangerous and non-routine jobs. Tree cutters, roof repairers, and other similar professions all have trained employees and OSHA-approved safety gear. Following a disaster, many companies will just “need to get it done.” When this happens, be very careful not to send employees into places where they will get hurt or their health and safety are at risk—especially if they are untrained or without proper safety equipment. If an employee has never been on a roof to make repairs, doing so after a storm may have damaged the structure in undetected ways is not a good first time to go on top of the building. While resources are always tight after a disaster, hold off on any truly dangerous work until experienced professionals can perform it.
- Do Not Discriminate. If you are calling in employees to perform added work after a disaster, be cognizant of, and fair in, the process of how you do it. Simply calling in young men to do cleanup work discriminates against older or women employees who may be just as eager to help. Similarly, if you give some employees time off to deal with damaged homes or vehicles, make sure you provide the same treatment to everyone. Should an employee need time away due to a family or medical issue (which happens frequently after a disaster), do what you can to respect those requests, keeping in mind the potential for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act and similar state laws.
- Be Understanding. While employment lawyers and HR personnel prefer “going by the rules,” sometimes strict adherence to every rule may not be the best practice after a disaster. While you must always monitor for abuses, give consideration to what employees are going through, for example, before issuing discipline right after a disaster. Storms interfere with the most basic of modern day functions including calling in, commuting, and making arrangements for children so the parent can work. So long as you are uniformly fair, consider some flexibility in enforcing work rules as things return to normal. Employees will be dealing with unexpected issues and they will appreciate the compassion.
Companies that pull together after a bad situation frequently have higher employee loyalty and morale when it is all over.