How HR Pros Are Responding to Hurricanes Irma, Harvey

Support for employees includes paid time to volunteer, EAP services for ‘survivor’s guilt’ 

By Dana Wilkie Sep 13, 2017
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​It's been many days since Hurricane Harvey pulverized parts of Texas and Louisiana, but HR professionals like Mitch Beckman are still grappling with the effects on their employees.

Beckman, SHRM-SCP, is vice president of HR with Webber, an infrastructure construction company in Houston. The company's compliance manager served as the head of disaster relief during Hurricane Harvey, taking calls from employees whose homes were damaged and from those who wanted to volunteer to help. Webber also pre-booked hotel rooms at a special rate for displaced employees. And it worked with its health care provider to make prescriptions available if workers' medications were destroyed by the storm.

Following the hurricane, the company sent some 60 employees from its Houston-area offices of 800 workers to help "mud-out" the homes of other Webber workers. This involved removing all sheet rock from homes to prevent mold from forming. The company paid for their time volunteering.

In addition, Beckman said, some employees are struggling with survivor's guilt, which was compounded by watching news coverage of Hurricane Irma as it pummeled Florida and then moved north.

"They see the devastation around them and ask why it didn't happen to them," he said. "Then they watch it again on TV in Florida and they're having flashbacks. I had several workers say it was difficult to watch again."

For such employees, Beckman's company referred them to employee assistance program (EAP) services and hired attorneys to help them deal with insurance claims.  The company also gave employees suggestions for volunteering on the weekends and after work.

Slow Road to Recovery

Recovering from a hurricane or other natural disaster isn’t typically high on the list of typical HR responsibilities. But when they occur, HR often is asked by senior management to take the lead role is helping employees manage through the crisis. That help often starts before a storm arrives. On Sept. 6, employees at a medical practice in the Orlando, Fla., area were attending to patients' needs, which prevented them from shopping for water and other supplies before stores sold out, said Joyce Chastain, SHRM-SCP, a regulatory compliance consultant with The Krizner Group in Tallahassee, Fla., which works with many companies in northern Florida and Georgia.

The medical practice provided water, canned food, flashlights and batteries that employees could take home at the end of the workday. The practice closed Sept. 7 and 8 so that workers could evacuate before Hurricane Irma hit.

As of midday Sept. 11, many employees who evacuated were still not allowed to return to their homes, some of which sustained significant structural damage, Chastain said.

"There are many roads that are impassible," Chastain said. "So, even if the employee didn't sustain damage, employees may not be able to return to work because of the condition of the roads." 

Most of the The Krizner Group's offices in the southern part of the state will remain closed through this week, she said, so "those who can work from home will certainly be permitted to do so."

"Most employers [besides The Krizner Group] not providing essential services are remaining closed or operating with minimal staff to allow their employees an opportunity to handle cleanup and repairs at their homes," she said.  "I spoke with one of my clients in Fort Lauderdale this morning and they are just beginning to assess the damage. Schools will most likely be closed there through the week. They expect they will not resume full operations until at least Monday, Sept. 18.  Even if they could resume operations earlier, their employees need the extra time to return from evacuation and do necessary repairs at their homes." 

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: Disaster Prep & Recovery]

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma knocked out 70 percent of the island's electricity. Michelle Benitez, SHRM-SCP, is managing director, human resources consulting, with HUB International Ltd., an insurance brokerage firm in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. She said that the brunt of the hurricane spared the island.

"We are still experiencing issues with electricity and in certain areas with the water supply," she said midday on Sept. 11. "Many businesses rely on generators to reestablish operations. Those that do not have that option remain closed. We are focusing on joining efforts to collect donations and support refugees and others that remain in our neighboring islands."

At her firm's location, all employees are back at work, although the company is "being flexible with those that may have to take care of children with no school," she said. 

"We are in the insurance business, thus we managed our contingency plans in advance, created chat groups to deploy information uniformly, and were fortunate to have a long weekend before the storm, so employees had the time to prepare in advance," she said.

But Benitez noted that she's heard concerns from small business owners about not being able to cover the payroll for additional time off for employees unable to return to work this week.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi extended its registration deadline for the fall semester through Sept. 20, provided 28 hours of paid evacuation leave benefits to eligible employees and encouraged employees to use EAP services, said Toni Cheryl Nerren, assistant director of human resources at the university.

Walt Disney World, headquartered in Orlando, said workers whose shifts were canceled by Hurricane Irma could use paid time off to make up the lost wages, Politico reported.

"Workers shouldn't have to sacrifice earned paid time off with their families, cancel their vacations or work overtime to make up for the park closing during a natural disaster," Rachel Gumpert, a spokeswoman for international labor union Unite Here told Politico. Gumpert said it was unfair for Disney to blur the distinction between earned paid time off, a benefit won at the bargaining table, and time off necessitated by a natural disaster.

A Disney spokesperson defended the company's decision in a written statement to Politico. "At Walt Disney World, we provide our Cast Members [i.e., employees] a comprehensive employment package that includes a flexible paid time off benefit," the spokesperson wrote. "Cast are able to utilize this benefit during a park closure." The spokesperson said that if a worker had already used his or her paid time off, Disney would provide "advance access" to a future pool of paid time off. The spokesperson also said workers could make up for lost wages by taking extra shifts this week.

United Here Local 362 represents about 6,000 employees at Walt Disney World who work in attractions, custodial services and vacation planning. A spokesperson for Local 362 did not reply to a request for comment from SHRM Online, nor did a spokesperson for Walt Disney World

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana, The Walt Disney Company and its ABC television station KTRK announced a $1 million cash commitment to the American Red Cross to support recovery efforts for communities affected by Harvey.

In addition, Disney said it would host a "Day of Giving" to benefit those impacted by the hurricane and would match employee donations to the American Red Cross and other qualified organizations involved in the Hurricane Harvey relief effort.

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