When Nature Strikes

As natural disasters occur with increasing frequency, employers are challenged to ensure worker safety while keeping up operations.
By: | January 29, 2018 • 5 min read

As Hurricane Irma geared up to unleash her fury on Florida and the Eastern seaboard this past September, Gov. Rick Scott issued an evacuation order, telling Florida residents, “You need to go now.” As with every major weather event, some heeded his warning, others didn’t. Among those who chose to stay put, many said it was a matter of keeping their job.

Across Reddit, Facebook and other social-media platforms, Floridians working for Pizza Hut, Walmart, Target, Lowe’s and other companies posted their dismay in being told they’d better report to work or face the consequences, including possible termination. In the aftermath of the storm—and the negative PR—both Lowe’s and Pizza Hut issued statements, placing the blame on rogue managers for going against company policy. According to a survey by Orlando-based Central Florida Jobs with Justice, more than half of respondents said their employers threatened to fire or discipline them for not showing up to work.

A shareholder in the Tampa, Fla., office of Ogletree Deakins, Phillip Russell believes stories of employers pressuring employees to report for work in the face of disaster are largely overblown.

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“Unless a person was in a safety-sensitive job, an infrastructure or first-responder type job, there were not that many employers who said, ‘No, you can’t evacuate,’” says Russell. “In fact, the vast majority of employers paid employees when they didn’t have to and let them leave the danger zone before the evacuation order was issued.”

Russell is dismayed that employers that did right by their employees did not garner the same attention as those that took questionable actions. Yet the firsthand accounts of people torn between evacuating to be safe and reporting to work to save their jobs have opened a crucial dialogue about how HR should handle a catastrophic weather event—and whether companies should institute formal policies for such situations.

Having weathered both Hurricanes Sandy and Irma, New York-based Fog Creek Software instituted a formal climate-leave policy, granting its 250 employees up to five days of leave for extreme weather each year—or longer, in the case of an extended, officially-declared state of emergency. This led numerous major business publications, including Bloomberg and Fast Company, to dedicate articles to this supposedly emerging new trend. Headlines proclaimed, “Paid Climate Leave May Be the Employee Benefit of the Future,” “Sign of the Times: Climate Leave Due to Extreme Weather is Now a Thing,” and “Why Companies Need to Consider Paid Climate Leave.”

In an online poll, taken by Benefits Canada from November to December 2017, 53 percent of respondents said climate leave is a good idea. On the ground, however, absence-management experts say they have yet to see an onslaught of employers drafting climate-leave policies.

“I don’t hear anybody talking about it,” says Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner with a focus on absence and disability management for Mercer in New York. “I haven’t had any clients come to me and say, ‘I think this is something we need to address.’ ”

That said, Fuerstenberg says, he wouldn’t be surprised if clients began inquiring about climate leave, primarily because some employers “take the view that they want to have a leave for every life event that comes up.” Others prefer to provide a PTO bank and leave it to the employee to determine what life situations necessitate time away from work.

That’s the approach seen most often by Julie Norville, senior vice president and national absence management practice leader in the Atlanta office of Aon, which found itself fielding employer questions during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“There’s a recognition that we need to give employees more time off for their personal needs,” she says. “Because of this move towards creating broader leave policies, I can see where climate leave could be a bullet point underneath personal leave, but I don’t expect most organizations will come up with specific climate-leave policies.”

Then there’s a “space in between,” says Fuerstenberg, where employers provide a bank of time for miscellaneous needs, but still maintain “certain buckets for certain specific events,” such as the death of a spouse or child—or a severe weather event.

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For employers looking to draft a climate-leave policy, Fuerstenberg says, he would advise them to build in a degree of flexibility, rather than box themselves in with specific details.

“If you put a policy in place, you have to live with that policy,” he says. “If you say, ‘I will protect everyone’s job for 60 days,’ what if it gets to be 62? You need to give yourself enough flexibility in your policy to address events as they come up.”

Employers should strive to coordinate any specific climate leave with existing PTO to keep labor costs under control, according to Joan Morehead, vice president of HR consulting at HRPro, a Royal Oak, Mich.-based HR and benefits-administration company. In place of a climate-leave policy, she’s seen companies encourage employees in less disaster-prone areas to donate unused PTO to those impacted by major weather events.

With natural disasters and severe weather events increasingly in both frequency and severity, employers will continually be challenged to keep business up and running, while ensuring the safety of their workers and giving them the opportunity to tend to home and family needs. Whether climate leave truly becomes the next big thing will largely be dependent upon how often employers find themselves plagued by such events.

“A lot of employers may choose to take this on a case-by-case basis,” says Fuerstenberg. “If this ends up being an annual or semi-annual event, that’s when they will look to come back with something a little more formalized. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter, covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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