Many Delaware residents experienced their first earthquake today. From Virginia to New York, floors were trembling and windows were shaking. The employees in my high-rise office building in Wilmington, Delaware reacted to the experience quite differently: some sat planted in our chairs stunned, later wandering into the hallways to see if anyone else felt the odd sensations, some immediately sought to flee the building, and others were convinced we were in mortal danger and upset the building was not evacuated. How, as an HR professional, do you advise your management to handle these crises—whether fleeting, or one that results in a more drastic impact?
Develop a communication and contingency plan
The key to handling crises, whether natural or man-made, is to have a Crisis Management and Disaster Preparedness Plan in place before the disaster strikes. Disorganization and a lack of well-thought-out emergency procedures pose almost as great a risk to employee safety in a time of crisis as the underlying catastrophic event itself. As a result, you should consider distributing to your employees a clearly articulated and easy-to-understand communication and contingency plan. At a minimum, your policy should explain what your employees should do and where they should go in the event of an emergency. For example, it should provide information about how they're to exit the facility if there's a fire or another type of disaster.
In addition, you should periodically practice evacuation drills and provide emergency contingency training to familiarize your employees with the proper procedures after an emergency occurs. You should also consider things like which equipment needs to be turned off when an emergency strikes, what your backup power sources are, where first-aid supplies will be kept, and how to communicate instructions to your employees or customers while an emergency is unfolding.
Every employer must keep a list of vital contacts. You should have complete contact information for your employees and corporate officers. A good contact list should also include local and federal emergency telephone numbers, including contact information for the Delaware Emergency Management Agency (whose phone number is (302) 659-DEMA).
On the business side, you should also keep telephone numbers and physical and e-mail addresses for major clients, suppliers, contractors, financial institutions, insurance agents, radio stations and newspapers, and any other individuals or businesses you might need to notify after a crisis occurs. Keep your contact list stored off-site so it's available if your main facility is inaccessible.
In addition, consider setting up a place on your website where employees can log in to indicate they are safe. If internet access is unavailable, the old-fashioned "phone tree" that assigns your employees to contact teams can by put into place. Employees on each contact team will be responsible for communicating with other employees on the team after an emergency. That makes locating employees and confirming their safety a far easier task than having no system at all. Another alternative is designating an off-site location employees can call to get information after a disaster or to notify your company and their family and friends that they're OK.
Include in your contingency plan a timeline of tasks to be accomplished. Your list should include things that must be accomplished before disaster strikes (if you have advance warning, like when a hurricane is predicted) and what must be done afterward.
Protect your records
Most of you can't really imagine how much you depend on the documents, forms, employee records, customer and contact lists, and accounting information you've developed over the years you've been in business. To reduce your losses, you must have adequate backups of all your company's important records, computer data, vendor and customer lists, and other information that is essential to your operations.
Make sure your backups are updated frequently and stored in an off-site location specially constructed for data and record storage. You can have all the backups in the world, but they won't do you any good if they're five years old or if they're stored in your office building when it burns to the ground.
Identify emergency business facilities
In the case of emergencies that disable your facilities for a significant amount of time, you may want to consider alternate facilities you might use to operate if a disaster hits your business. Look for facilities that will rent office or warehouse space for short terms, or consider using your employees' homes if your business can be conducted through telecommuting. Of course, you'll have to have a communication plan in place before disaster strikes so your employees and customers will know you're still operating.
Make provisions for employees' wages, benefits
Employers aren't required to pay hourly nonexempt employees for time away from work because of a workplace disaster. Nevertheless, those employees may be eligible for certain pay benefits, including unemployment compensation. You should be cognizant that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, salaried exempt employees must be paid their full salary for any workweek in which they perform any amount of work — regardless of how many days or hours they actually work. If they aren't, you risk having them lose their exemption.
If you're like most employers, some of the most important benefits you provide your employees are health, disability, and life insurance. If any of your employees or their beneficiaries are injured or killed during a disaster, those benefits may be their (and their families') only lifeline of hope. Consequently, make sure you provide whatever help they or their families need to file their health insurance or workers' compensation claims. Injured employees may also need help filing claims under your short-term or long-term disability policies.
Here are some helpful things you can do:
• Let your employees know about pertinent deadlines. Be sure to provide them with the correct forms promptly and help them fill out the paperwork if necessary.
• If an employee's injuries prevent her from filing a claim, contact her spouse or another family member to advise her which benefits are available.
• If an employee is temporarily or permanently disabled, work with her to determine whether there's a reasonable accommodation that will allow her to return to work.
Address employee leave
Keep in mind the proper application of your company's leave policies — and the various laws that protect employees who are injured or whose family members are injured. Take care to apply your sick, personal, vacation, paid time off, and bereavement leave policies uniformly and with compassion.
Injuries sustained during a disaster may qualify someone to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for himself or a family member. If an employee needs to take a leave of absence for nonmedical reasons, check your policies and let him know what his options are. Even if you don't usually allow nonmedical leaves of absence, storm cleanup may be an extenuating circumstance that will allow you to grant leave now. Just remember to treat all employees fairly when doling out leave.
Prepare for emotional component
Finally, the stress of a disaster takes a tremendous toll on everyone, both physically and emotionally. If you're prepared to target the fears and concerns of your workforce, you'll be better prepared to recover from a disaster. Managers should have plans to address those concerns and understand that people respond differently during crises. You must accept the fact that performance and productivity will drop, and some employees may have increased absences and difficulty concentrating on their work.
Contact your employee assistance program (EAP) provider for counseling information for stressed workers and their families. Alert your provider that employees will be contacting it. Remind employees about the EAP, and provide them with its phone number.
It appears that the earthquake felt in Delaware did not harm anyone or significantly impact businesses, but it’s a good reminder of what you need in place in case it had. Planning for the unthinkable is the smart thing to do from a business standpoint. Because every business is unique, employers are well advised to consult with employment counsel to help develop a disaster-preparedness and crisis-management policy best suited to your needs.