Winter Storms Warning

A new survey reveals that most companies barely earn a passing grade on how they cope with winter storms.

By Carol Patton

Employers from New England to the Gulf Coast have been struggling this year with what may be remembered as the winter from hell. 

Considering the record amounts of precipitation and cold temperatures, thousands of employers have been forced to make difficult decisions. How many days should the office be closed? Which employees need to work from home? Should critical workers stay in a hotel within walking distance?

Nearly one-third (32 percent) of American workers graded their employers a C or D, or would have no qualms flunking them when it comes to preparedness for a major winter storm, according to a new poll of American workers, commissioned by FM Global, a commercial and industrial property insurer based in Norwood, Mass.

The nationwide poll was conducted in mid-February by TNS, a research-services organization. Of the 426 full-time workers who responded, more than half (52 percent) stated they were dissatisfied with how their employer has coped with the succession of blizzards or frigid temperatures this winter and want them to do a better job at storm readiness.

"There's a higher than average number of respondents in the South who didn't feel their company was as well-prepared as they should be," says Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research at FM Global.

He believes preparing and implementing an effective bad-weather plan represents a huge opportunity for HR to help put employees' minds at ease. But even the best plan won't matter unless it's communicated to workers.

Whether it's HR, risk management or a joint collaboration, Gritzo says someone must own this responsibility. The first task is to identify the type of bad weather that may occur by checking historical records or contacting local municipalities.

"If you don't know your exposure, you don't know what to be ready for," he says. "That's the foundation you're going to build everything else on."

Among HR's biggest challenges are memory and complacency, says Gritzo, explaining that companies may be very proactive in taking corrective action during storms. However, if there's a several year period of calm winter weather, complacency tends to set in fairly quickly. He says employers must move forward, review their plan every year and inform employees before winter about its storm plans.

"We all want to keep our businesses functioning and (employees) to go to work the next day," Gritzo says. "Companies that do this very well have not only more productive employees, but help their bottom line and [help] employees keep their job."

At Eurpac, its 700 employees can call a dedicated hotline to check on delayed office openings or closures, explains Maureen Ducret, vice president of HR at the sales and military-related marketing-services firm based in Norwalk, Conn.

She says roughly half of the company's employee population works on military bases and most aren't affected by snowday policies.

For the remainder, however, specific policies are in place. Due to snowstorms this year, the company delayed opening until 9:30 a.m. one morning and also closed early another day at 1:30 in the afternoon. While all employees were paid for an eight-hour day, she says nonexempt employees who came to work also received an additional half-day of vacation.

The company's executive team bases office closings on weather and road conditions, such as if the major highways are closed, and designates one person to update the hotline and send an email to all affected employees.

Still, employees do have some flexibility. If exempt employees decide to work from home, they are paid for the full day. However, if they prefer not to work or can't because they left their laptop at work, for example, they must use a vacation day, Ducret says. The same holds true for nonexempt employees who don't come into the office. They must use a vacation day or take an unpaid day.

While establishing clear policies is essential, it's also a good HR practice to email employees a notice every fall, asking them to review the policy so they have clear expectations about what will happen during a snow blizzard or ice storm, for example, says David Lewis, president at OperationsInc., an HR consulting and outsourcing firm in Norwalk, Conn.

Other rules may also apply for companies that support offices in different states. Although driving in one foot of snow may be routine for employees in Boston, he says six inches of snow for employees in Atlanta could be Armageddon.

Lewis says each policy needs to include a philosophical statement regarding the company's stance. Take an online retailer based in New York. Will customer service employees be expected to work from home on snow days, answering customer calls, to prevent customers in nonaffected states from shopping elsewhere? If your company delivers critical services around the country, will key employees be required to sleep in the office or a nearby hotel to maintain the network? Expectations need to be clearly spelled out in the employer policy, employee handbook and during job interviews.

Still, HR may be challenged by unknown factors, such as dealing with employees who have young children.

"In my business, I resigned myself to the fact that the only way I was going to get people to come to work on snow days was to let them bring their kids," he says, adding that his firm supports 60 employees.

On two snow days this year, approximately eight children spent the day in the company's 2,000-square-foot training room, supervised by older children and parents who rotated in and out of the room throughout the workday. Many children brought their own devices, games or arts and crafts. The company set up a TV in the room and also provided lunch.

"Respect the fact that different people in your organization are going to have different perspectives on their own safety and comfort level with traveling in bad weather," he says. "It's a big mistake for [HR] to think that it can establish one standard . . . and make everybody follow it and be comfortable with that standard."

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Mar 2, 2015
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