HR's Role: Catastrophe Response During a Pandemic, Part 2

June 10, 2020
By Lorie Floyd, TAC Human Resources Consultant
Risk Management News

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This is part two of a four-part series on catastrophe response during a pandemic. The first article examined safety considerations.

Human resources (HR) plays a vital role in planning and preparing for any catastrophe. During these uncertain times of COVID-19, we still need to be prepared for other catastrophic events that may occur, such as flooding, tornados or hurricanes.

As we begin the storm season, is your county ready? Most, if not all, of our focus has been on dealing with the effects of COVID-19, but Mother Nature does not seem to be concerned with that.

Let's think about how we should prepare for storm season from the HR perspective. Here's a downloadable HR Catastrophe Checklist.

First, we need to make sure we are prepared before the catastrophe occurs. This is the most crucial step in the process. The county needs a plan that addresses all HR functions to include policies, payroll and benefit administration, and continuation of operations in the event of a catastrophe.

Since the effect of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which is effective April 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020, counties have had to make adjustments to several county policies. FFCRA impacts Family Medical Leave (FMLA), paid sick leave and some essential employees. 

  • Does your county have written polices to address FFCRA and other emergency situations?
  • Do your employees know your policies and have access to them, i.e., online?
  • Do you have an updated emergency closure policy addressing compensation issues?
  • Will attendance rules need to be changed?
  • Are there any flexible work options?
  • What is your overtime policy to qualify for FEMA reimbursements, if applicable?
  • Who are our essential employees that have to work?

How do we pay our essential employees who have to work in a crisis, both exempt and non-exempt?

Payroll is a major function if not one of the most important functions that must continue during any situation.

  • Are you prepared to process payroll if you are not able to get to your office?
  • Do you have employee emergency contact information?
  • How do you pay our employees who are out due to the catastrophe?

Administration of benefits also have to be maintained during a catastrophe. Health claims, life insurance claims, workers' compensation claims and disability claims will still need to be processed. An employee will go to HR and HR needs to be ready to respond to all types of claims.

We rely heavily on technology. The county needs to ensure all financial and other data is secure and maintained during emergencies.

  • Will technology be accessible during emergency situations?
  • What should happen if the facility is destroyed and with it the data needed for business operations?
  • What if there is no internet access?

As we have all learned with COVID-19, county operations will continue. Essential employees need to be established. Be ready to respond to policy questions, fit for duty issues, sick and emergency leave issues, absentee employees, and overtime tracking for all employees.

What good is a plan if the employees do not know it or have not been trained? Training all employees for a catastrophe will help when one hits your county. Employees need to know what role they play and what needs to be done.

Training topics include:

  • Types of hazards and emergencies.
  • Evacuation procedures.
  • Shelter-in-place locations.
  • Lockdown procedures.
  • First aid supplies.
  • Automated external defibrillators (AEDs).
  • Assistance for employees with disabilities.
  • Communication methods.
  • Emergency response team members and contact information.
  • Staffing expectations — essential employees, offsite work, layoffs.

Now let's look at when the catastrophe hits. What do we need to do during the incident?

Communication is key, not just when something happens, but during and after as well. If you are not communicating, then employees do not know what is going on or what do to.

How will your county relay valuable information to employees? Do you have a system set up to communicate off-site and through other means such as websites, text messaging and social media? Make sure to communicate with employees by using various channels, on or off-site.

If there is no internet, how will employees get the information needed? Check in with your employees and make sure they know you are there and they have the support they need to recover. Make sure employees have access to support systems such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) and stress or grief counseling. Assure them of the process to receive their paycheck and other benefits needed. Keep them informed of the plan to continue county operations, and what role they play.

Lastly it is important to follow up after the incident occurs. Again we look at communication. Chances are that every one of your employees will be impacted in some way, maybe not directly. There could be loss of lives, and loss of homes and belongings. Do you have a plan to deal with psychological after effects either on an individual or group basis? Consider providing employees access to support systems such as EAPs and stress or grief counseling. What is your process to return employees back to work? What if an employee is not able to return to work as quickly as expected?

After the county is back to work and getting things back in a routine, it is important to evaluate what worked and what did not work. Did the county have policies to address what was needed? Do any policies or procedures need to be updated? Also think about updating policies periodically as people and processes change. Are there any follow-ups need for insurance claims, property damage, etc.?

It is never a fun topic to think about disasters and catastrophes, but being prepared makes it easier to manage when they do occur. Take the time to prepare and address the necessary steps for every employee to pull through even faster.

COVID-19 has taught us several things — counties are strong, counties will find a way to fight and counties are always there. Stay safe. Texas needs you!