As natural disasters become increasingly common, businesses need to be prepared. This post shares both best practices and legal requirements for employers during natural disasters and similar emergencies.

Have a Communications Plan for Employees and Customers

At the height of a crisis, businesses need to have an emergency plan in place to mitigate any disruption to business operations.  Emergencies are inherently unpredictable. As a business you must prepare for a multitude of contingencies and be ready to share information from the top down in a transparent and concise manner. That is why first and foremost employers must have a crisis communications strategy as part of their emergency plan. A crisis communications plan goes beyond the obvious steps such as having up-to-date contact information for customers and employees. Businesses need to have a crisis communications plan both for their employees and their customers in order to communicate how operations will be impacted during an emergency.

There is a substantive difference between communications for traditional public relations purposes and crisis communications. In an emergency, whether it is naturally occurring or artificial, businesses need to mitigate reputational damage by being transparent, decisive, and responsible.  The rumor mill begins to churn when employers leave customers and employees in the dark. At the outset, businesses need to have a decision maker and a consistent means of communicating accurate information promptly. The goal of crisis communications is not to provide a positive spin. Instead, businesses need to focus on explaining the impact of an emergency and what steps are being taken to lessen that impact.

Hindsight is 20/20. After any incident take the opportunity to assess how well your company executed its plan. While it is fresh in your memory, your leadership team should document any areas in which there is room for improvement. Businesses should also consider sending out a survey to its employees and customers to gauge its performance.

If your company has been fortunate enough to not yet have weathered an actual or metaphorical storm, run a drill. There are countless examples in the news of businesses that managed major crises. Your company should take the opportunity to prepare based on others’ lessons learned.

Organization Charts and Job Descriptions

Organization charts and job descriptions are often treated as needless documents growing dust in personnel files. In an emergency, however, understanding the chain-of-command and employees’ job duties is essential. Lower level employees need to receive guidance and information from their immediate supervisors. In turn, those supervisors should provide consistent information throughout the enterprise. To ensure that proper channels of communication and approval procedures are maintained, businesses should examine the reporting structure from the bottom up. In other words, determine to whom the lowest level employees in each department will report and then to whom that supervisor will report and so on. At each juncture in the reporting chain supervisors need to have the most current information. In addition, for urgent messages, the leadership team should hold all staff meetings to eliminate any delay or risk of miscommunication.

Job descriptions are useful tools for delineating employees’ job duties during emergencies and natural disasters. Employees should know in advance whether they are key personnel that are required to stay; whether work can be performed remotely; and what the expectations are if the business is closed. In an increasingly technological world, many employees are capable of telecommuting. Businesses should update their job descriptions to include employee’s responsibilities during an emergency. This will minimize business disruptions and provide employees with advanced notice so that they can prepare.

Reporting to Work During a Natural Disaster

Providing a remote option during a natural disaster not only makes business sense, but it may be your only legal option. Under OSHA, employers are responsible for protecting employees from unreasonable danger in the workplace. This includes protecting employees from reporting to work when there are unsafe conditions caused by natural disasters. In addition, many states have health and safety laws that protect workers from being exposed to hazardous conditions, including those caused by natural phenomena.

The financial impact on your business caused by the loss of work productivity cannot be underestimated. However, there are federal and state programs along with insurance policies designed to lessen those costs. The wellbeing of your employees should be paramount. Remember that natural disasters significantly affect the lives of your employees. If your employees are able to safely work remotely, be flexible.

Whether to Pay Employees

The final issue for consideration when business operations are disrupted by a natural disaster is whether employers are legally obligated to pay employees when work is not being performed. State laws vary, but for covered employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) the answer turns upon whether the employee is hourly or salary exempt. The FLSA requires employers to pay non-exempt employees only for hours that the employees have actually worked. This means that an employer is not required to pay employees for hours that they could not work due to a natural disaster. In addition, following a natural disaster there may also be a reduction in available work. Employers are free to reduce their hourly employees’ schedules as needed.

For salary exempt employees, however, if they are “ready, willing and able to work, deductions may not be made for time when work is not available.” 29 C.F.R. §541.602(a). Since employers are not required under the FLSA to provide any vacation time or PTO to employees, you may require an exempt employee to take leave without pay or use accrued vacation time for the full day that he or she fails to report to work. However, a deduction from salary for less than a full-day’s absence is not permitted. If you are open for business, but an exempt employee cannot commute to work due to inclement weather, you may also treat these full day absences as “personal absences.”

Employers should keep in mind that most U.S. workers live paycheck-to-paycheck. As a best practice, you may consider allowing employees to work remotely, if possible, or make up missed hours upon returning to work. Flexible childcare and telework policies may assist in maintaining your work production and boosting employee morale.

Natural disasters are economically and emotionally devastating. Unfortunately, they are becoming more frequent and destructive. Businesses should develop emergency plans that include a clear crisis communication strategy. In addition to legal obligations, employers should consider their options for maintaining a seamless workplace and safeguarding their most valuable asset: their employees.