After years of good fortune, the 2017 Hurricane Season severely impacted most of South Florida and the Gulf Coast. Even those of us who suffered little or no property damage probably lost power for at least a few days, and many had no electricity for weeks.  Businesses had difficulty functioning without electricity, internet access, and safe drinking water.  Many workers were simply unable to come to work – difficulty navigating roads full of debris or without working traffic lights, addressing personal needs, or providing childcare because schools were closed.  Let’s hope that 2018 is a quiet hurricane season, but just in case, below are some steps and policies to prepare for the worst.

  1. Update the home address, home telephone number, cell phone number and personal email address for each of your employees. You may need to use cell phones, texting, and personal email to communicate with employees after a storm if the equipment in your office is not functioning. Consider having an analog telephone on hand because today’s digital telephone systems will not work if the power is out.
  2. Designate an emergency response team and provide each team member with a list of employees for whom he or she is responsible for contacting after the storm has passed.
  3. Provide information on the company’s voicemail system and website so that employees can check the status of the business’s operations and receive updates.
  4. Are you a business that must remain open even during natural disasters, such as a hotel or hospital? If so, you must identify essential personnel who are required to remain at work during the storm. You may also want to ask for volunteers to work during the hurricane. The employer should consider incentives to encourage employees to volunteer to work, such as increased pay or earned days off. Consider whether your place of employment can accommodate the household members and/or pets of employees who are required to work or who volunteer to work during the storm. Employers may wish to assess whether inviting household members to “ride out the storm” at the workplace will ease the minds of employees, allowing them to focus on their duties, or serve as a distraction.
  5. Employers should consider in advance whether they will compensate employees if a disaster prevents the workplace from operating. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers only need to pay non-exempt employees for the hours they actually work. However, if an exempt employee works part of a day, the FLSA prohibits the employer from docking the employee for a partial day absence. If the exempt employee is precluded from working because the business is not operational, the employer may still have to compensate the employee and may not be permitted to require the employee to use paid leave for that day off. If the exempt employee is unable to report to work for a personal reason, including inability to travel to the workplace, the employer may be able to dock the employee for that day’s pay or require the employee to substitute paid leave for the day’s absence.
  6. Consider how the company will distribute paychecks if the business is not functioning. Employers may wish to consider asking employees to enroll in a direct deposit program so that wages can be electronically transferred into their accounts, assuming of course that the financial institutions involved in the transaction are operating. Employers in Florida cannot require employees to enroll for direct deposit of wages.
  7. Require employees working from home in the storm’s aftermath to track and log their hours worked. Non-exempt employees who are working from home must be paid for all hours worked. The employer will need some mechanism to track and limit the hours spent working remotely. If the company does not want non-exempt employees working from home, the employer should communicate that clearly before the storm arrives.
  8. After other natural disasters, many employers have participated in employer-sponsored relief programs including:
    • Permitting employees to donate accrued vacation, sick, or personal leave in exchange for employer contributions to charitable organizations that are providing relief to disaster victims
    • Permitting employees to donate accrued vacation, sick, or personal leave to their co-workers who were more dramatically impacted by the storm
    • If applicable, donating directly to affected employees through qualified disaster relief payments
    • Establishing an employer-sponsored 501(c)(3) employee relief fund, which staff can contribute to, and using the funds to make payouts to staff members who have been affected by the storms

Consider whether your company will participate in any of these employer-sponsored relief programs and what tax implications, if any, there may be.