When a Disaster Affects your Job

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Category 5 Hurricane Irma courtesy NOAA

Today, I’m at home as Hurricane Irma does her thing. This article originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union, but the advice is worth repeating.

Your employer may have a strong and well-crafted emergency preparedness plan with clear policies on what to do and how to communicate during and after a storm. But you can do your part to help minimize the impact on your work and your income.

First, if you are a new employee or slated to start your job during a catastrophe, be sure you communicate well and often with your new employer. Adam Schrader, a freelance journalist, was supposed to start his new job as managing editor of the Colorado County Citizen in Columbus, Texas on August 28. Stranded by floodwaters in Houston, he missed his first day of work. He communicated by text with his employer, who texted him to “be safe,” but then fired him by text the next day.

Schrader had a perfect storm (so to speak) of bad luck. He was supposed to show up at the Colorado County Citizen to fill out employment paperwork the Friday before the storm struck, but his car was in the shop. He claims his employer knew about that, but the newspaper says he never communicated with them until they reached out to him.  Lesson learned: it’s your job to make sure your employer is kept in the loop. Even then, you may find your offer of employment is rescinded because of the storm’s impact, and you won’t have any legal recourse.

If you are employed, inform your manager of your emergency contact numbers and several alternatives (a spouse or parent’s number or email) in case you can’t be reached. Let your boss know what your evacuation plans will be if you have to leave town, including how long it might take you to return. Be sure you understand your company’s policy on taking leave for emergencies; there will probably be some paid time off, but you may have to take vacation time if you can’t or choose not to return to work when the company resumes operations. If you’re an hourly worker, chances are you won’t get paid for time you’re not working, even if it’s your employer’s choice to close the business.

Make sure you secure your work and back up important files. If you have customers and business in other parts of the country, you’ll need to inform them about what’s happening locally. You can’t assume that people in other states are following or even aware of the storm.  They may be confused or annoyed by your lack of response as you prepare for impact or go offline during the worst of the weather.

In addition to missing work because of office closures, you may not be paid on time for hours you did work. Your employer may have trouble processing payroll if power and systems are down, so you may need to tap savings until things get back to normal. Chances are, you’ll qualify for Unemployment Compensation (in Florida, the program is called Reemployment Assistance) to help bridge the gap. You may also be able to apply for time off to recover from an injury of illness related to the storm or help a family member do so. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is designed to protect the jobs of workers who have to deal with health issues.

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) website has an excellent summary of worker and employer rights and responsibilities during a disaster. Find it  here.

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