Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are a devastating start to the storm season, a period that often continues into the spring, bringing challenges to both employers and employees. We’ve outlined some best practices surrounding common concerns following a natural disaster. Keep in mind that employers can always provide more generous pay, time off and benefits to their employees impacted by these events than the laws require. How employers treat employees affected by a disaster can impact the company’s employee relations and reputation with customers and the community.
Employers often ask whether they need to pay employees when bad weather forces an office closure. Employers with unionized workforces should check their collective bargaining contracts that may provide guaranteed pay regardless of the time actually worked. For nonunion employers, the answer typically depends on a couple of things:
Advance notice or not
Working from home
Employees may request to work from home following a storm or similar event. In this case, policy is everything. Employers are not required to allow an employee to work from home, regardless of their FLSA status. The employer can decide if working from home is feasible and reasonable, but should have clearly communicated policies and expectations regarding working from home during office closures prior to any such closure. Further, these policies should be uniformly applied.
If you’re a rule follower, you will be disappointed to learn that there are no federal or state laws that define how a company must notify employees of office closures in the event of natural disasters, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority.
Proactively implement a policy and check-in procedure for all employees so they know if the business is closed or not and so you know your employees are safe. Consider that cell service may be unavailable and internet connections can be iffy after a storm or natural disaster, so land lines and old fashioned phone trees might be the most effective plan. Employers often use a variety of methods to reach employees, including text messages, phone trees, website notices, or recorded messages at a call-in number. Following a storm or natural disaster is definitely the time to over communicate.
Benefits and employee assistance programs
Reminding employees about the benefits available to them, including employee assistance for emotional or financial support, and how to access those benefits can be useful in times of stress.
On August 30, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that individuals adversely affected by Hurricane Harvey can take loans or make hardship withdrawals from their company retirement plans (401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) funds). You may wish to help your employees take advantage of this program by pointing them toward this information.
On September 5, the IRS announced support of leave-based donation programs that allow employees to donate the value of their paid time off to support the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Under this program, employers can contribute the value of employees’ PTO contributions and take a business expense tax deduction instead of a charitable contribution. The donations must be made to nonprofit organizations specifically earmarked for Hurricane Harvey relief and must be made by January 1, 2019. Employees who donate their PTO cannot claim that as a charitable deduction but will not be subject to income or Social Security taxes on the donations.
For those employees who are members of a volunteer responder unit or the National Guard and are called for duty, be sure to check state laws for allowing job-protected time off.
If the workplace is damaged, employers should ensure that there are no physical hazards that would pose safety risks for employees. Watch for signs of fatigue if employees are working additional hours to cover for colleagues who cannot be at work.
Show the love
Ultimately, people are the key to the success of any business, and the time to embrace your staff and be as generous and flexible as possible is after a storm or natural disaster. Understanding that employees nationwide may have friends and family affected by a natural disaster, even if the event was not in your location, is important. Employees may be under additional stress and struggling with uncertainty. Allowing flexibility and time off will show employees you’re willing to help them through a difficult time.
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