As a small business owner, it’s important to try to prepare for anything—even Mother Nature. In Florida, that means doing what you can to make sure your business and your employees are as ready as possible for hurricanes, named storms, and other events that can cause serious problems.
Hurricane season is a stressful time that requires plenty of preparation and employee management to help weather any issues. Here are some tips that you can use to help you and your employees navigate any potential problems before, during, and after a storm.
Train Your Employees Ahead of Time
Good employees play a major role in the success of your business, but sometimes they don’t always look out for themselves. The best time to prepare for a natural disaster is long before one arrives, so it’s smart to include hurricane education as part of a regular training program, especially if you have a lot of transient workers who never experienced a storm before.
People move to Florida all the time. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 330,000 moved to the Sunshine State from 2016 to 2017, which is an average of nearly 900 people per day. That means a lot of workers in the state have never been through a bad storm before. A hurricane education session can help them know what they should always have available, including:
- Battery operated TV and fans
- Second refrigerator just to store water (will keep somewhat cool even after power is out)
- Nonperishable canned goods
While basic hurricane preparation education and supplies are good, you can go the next step and see if an expert would be willing to help. Local meteorologists are a great resource for hurricane training, whether they give you some helpful advice or are willing to visit your business to talk to your employees. It never hurts to ask.
The frequency of the training depends on the makeup of your business. If you have a small workforce and little turnover, training can be more infrequent. If you’re in a high turnover business or have a larger staff, yearly training sessions can be a good idea. It’s also important to stress to your employees that they may want to consider leaving the area depending on the storm. Sometimes the best plan of action is to be nowhere near the hurricane when it hits.
Close the Office When Necessary
In general, the decision to close the office due to an incoming storm is up to you. OSHA does stipulate in its general duty clause, that all places of employment are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” Essentially, if the storm makes your workplace a dangerous location, it’s time to shut down and evacuate.
Another reason to play it safe and close your business if the weather is questionable is to avoid any potential liability issues. While the commute to and from your office is outside of your workplace, there is a grey area in terms of whether you’re on the hook if the impending or active storm causes an employee to get hurt or have an accident. A court may rule in your favor, but you may not want to take that risk when you can simply play it safe and close your office.
Handle Wages with Care
If you decide to close your business, your employees may still expect to be paid. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), what they’re owed and if you need to pay them at all can depend on the type of employee:
- Nonexempt employees are only owed for the hours they’ve worked according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This means that you do not owe them any money when you close your business.
- Exempt employees are owed their full salary if the weather forces the office to close for less than a full workweek. However, you may require these employees to take paid time off (PTO) during these days.
While the FLSA outlines your minimum requirements, that doesn’t mean that you should follow these guidelines. Forcing an employee to take PTO sends a message that you see the hurricane as their vacation, which will rub even the most loyal workers the wrong way. In addition, being left without a paycheck for something out of their control can create some discontent, even if the business isn’t able to generate any money during the closure either.
One solution to this is to go above and beyond if possible. If you know what an employee typically makes during a week, find a compromise, whether it’s paying them in full or even offering a portion of their normal earnings. This can show them that you’re still trying to help during a difficult period. If you can’t make that kind of financial commitment or you need to make serious repairs to the business after the storm, explain the situation so that your employees understand instead of feeling blindsided by a lack of pay.
Be Open and Accommodating About Leaves of Absence
Even if you decide to keep your business open, there may be employees who want to stay home with their families. In this case, the Department of Labor allows you to consider such leave as an absence for personal reasons. As with wages, however, this can send a bad message to a good employee. Instead, it can be best to be flexible for employees who want to be at home to prepare for a storm, especially if they plan to head out of state.
You can also offer some alternatives. For example, you can allow employees to work from home if possible. This will allow them to cut down on travel during a storm without sacrificing valuable work hours, at least until the power goes out.
Employees may also be absent from work after a storm to attend to post-disaster needs, such as meeting with insurance adjusters. SHRM also notes that “employees affected by a natural disaster are entitled to leave under the FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] for a serious health condition caused by the disaster,” such as the need to care for a family member.
If you want a more set structure in terms of how many days employees are allowed off for storms, you can include writing in your handbook or leave policies that sets out a specific process. The problem with this is that no hurricane is the same. One storm could last two days, while another could last 10. A set policy may pigeonhole you into an exact number of days if you’re not careful.
Protect Important Documents
Both you and your employees have important documents that must always stay safe. Unfortunately, hurricanes don’t cooperate. In Florida, it’s good to invest in document storage that can protect both business and personal documents from the elements, like a fireproof and waterproof safe.
While a great start, a safe can’t protect your documents from a worst-case scenario. If a storm is projected to be bad enough to make you leave the area, make sure to take your documents with you so that the storm doesn’t take them away for good. Digitizing documents in a securely-stored online portal can also make sure that these files are safe from storms and accessible anyplace with an internet connection.
Good communication is a key part of hurricane preparation. It’s important to keep in contact with your employees long before a storm hits, during the storm, and after it’s gone.
While some employees will know the risks and protect themselves, others may not understand the danger of these storms or will be afraid to stay home out of fear of losing their job. Monitor the situation and make employees feel comfortable with their decision to stay or go if the coming storm looks dangerous. There are times where storms pass over and you don’t need to close, but it’s always good to err on the side of caution instead of being wrong about the weather.
If you have any other questions about protecting your business before, during, and after a storm, it’s best to communicate with a trusted HR partner. GMS is a Professional Employer Organization that serves companies of all sizes across the nation. The experts in our Fort Myers, Florida branch can work with you to help you protect your business and manage key HR functions that complicate your day and bog down your schedule.
Contact GMS today to talk to one of our experts in our Florida office about how we can help your business prepare for the future.