How to Help Your Workers After a Disaster

People in Houston, its sprawling suburbs, and along the Gulf Coast are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastating flooding. In Florida and along the Southeastern Seaboard, Hurricane Irma left the Caribbean upside down, and Florida on alert.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expects 450,000 people will seek relief following the massive flooding Harvey produced. Almost 60,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged during the storm across Harris County, Texas, and up to a million cars were destroyed.

As a business owner or manager, how do you help your workers cope with a disaster, whether it’s a hurricane, a wildfire, an earthquake, or a terror attack? What support can you offer, especially when your business and personal life were impacted by the disaster? Here are some ideas for helping your employees as everyone works to get their lives and livelihoods back on track:

Reach Out to Your Workers

Stay in contact with your employees as soon as you are able following the disaster. Your company should always have an up-to-date emergency contact list that managers can access even when they are not on the company’s premises. Your goal here is to make sure everyone is safe. Don’t expect an answer right away. People may be dealing with more pressing issues or be without cell service and power. If most people have been accounted for and someone is still not responding, call the authorities to check on them.

Communicate With Your Workers

Once you’ve determined all of your workers are safe, subsequent emails and phone calls should clarify the extent of the damage to their homes, their modes of transportation, and any destruction to the workplace. Some lucky employees will come through the disaster with their bodies and property unscathed. Other workers could be facing injuries, family members with injuries, and extensive property damage. Your business may return to normal in no time, or be facing weeks or months of renovation, the need to relocate, or even to shut down. A manager must be responsible for finding out when employees expect to return to work, letting workers know when and if the business will be up and running again, and clarifying expectations about their return to work.

Offer Compassion

Your employees need empathy following disasters. They may have lost a family member, lost their home, or countless possibilities in between. These incidents can be traumatizing, even for those who were not directly impacted. The stresses of daily life can also be exacerbated following a disaster. Getting to work or getting a good night’s rest can be more difficult. Be patient with people and encourage them to share their stories. Talking is an important part of coping with difficult events. If your organization is large, consider offering your staff counseling from on-site social workers. Small organizations can gather and distribute the names of reputable social workers.  

Know the Law

Understand the labor laws that could impact your business following a disaster, including The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA). This fact sheet from the United States Department of Labor answers common questions.  

Protect Workers During Cleanup

When a workplace is damaged or flooded, cleanup is hazardous. Disasters increase the risk of electrical dangers, structural issues, and harmful air. Keep in mind that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations remain in place following a disaster. The structure should be thoroughly inspected by officials to ensure it’s safe to enter before workers begin cleanup, and proper personal protective equipment must be provided. Rest, water breaks, proper lifting techniques, and safe equipment remain as important as always during disaster cleanups.

Be Flexible

If your business is office based, consider allowing your employees to work some days remotely when possible. This lets them clean their home, make appointments with contractors, or visit their healthcare providers, with less stress. For workers who must be on premises, understand that transportation disruptions and personal issues will be more common in the days and weeks following a disaster. Your employees will appreciate the leeway, have lower stress levels, and ultimately perform better when things return to normal.

Be Prepared

Hopefully your business has an emergency and business continuity plan in place before a storm is brewing or the unexpected occurs. If your company doesn’t have a clear plan of action, it’s time to create one. FEMA’s Ready website offers guidance on establishing a business continuity plan to prepare for a disaster.

Create a Disaster Relief Program

People want to help following disasters but don’t always know how, where, or what to give. If employees of your organization have been impacted by a disaster, consider establishing a fund where their coworkers can lend a hand through financial donations. If your organization was not impacted, support relief organizations that are on the ground in the affected region.

In difficult times, you can best help your employees by offering patience, compassion, and support, while clearly communicating expectations and business needs. With this approach, you will more likely weather the storm with healthy employee relations and a healthy business.