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Benefits Column

When the Lights Go Out

Most organizations are prepared to respond to problems at the company's physical plant or data-storage facilities. Fewer have thought through what actions to take when it is their employees who are struggling -- such as during the lengthy power outages following this fall's early snowstorm.

Monday, November 21, 2011
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On Oct. 29, the lights went out in Connecticut.

A rogue snowstorm swept through the state and dumped up to two feet of wet, heavy snow onto tree limbs still bearing fall foliage. The result was snapped branches and power lines.

I was one of CL&P's 831,000 customers who lost power. Power outages mean more than an inability to turn on the lights. I was without heat, hot water, a working landline, a mobile telephone or Internet access.

Almost three weeks later, utility trucks roam the streets as tree trunks and branches are still lined up along roadways like fallen wooden soldiers. It's been a little bit like surviving a small-scale conflict.

From this experience, I found there are three things you worry about after losing the creature comforts of home -- especially when nighttime temperatures dip below freezing: staying warm, showering and eating.

You focus as well on the comfort and safety of your family, friends and neighbors. And you find that you're starved for information of any kind.

Once you realize this situation will last longer than a few days, you also worry about your work and your clients.

Ultimately, I was without power for eight days and home Internet access for 11, which impacted my business. I thrived through the generosity of friends. My lifeline for personal and business communication became Facebook, which I could occasionally access through the 3G network on my iPhone that I kept running via my car charger.

As a small-business owner, I was on my own. But, as I gathered daily with friends, I asked what their employers -- many of which either had electricity or were running their operations with diesel generators -- were doing to help them.

The response varied widely.

Initially, some granted their workers Monday -- the first work day post-storm -- as a holiday. Any additional employee time off would come from PTO banks.

Most employers that had shower facilities -- no matter how limited -- made them available to their workers. Other employers made arrangements for their employees to shower at local health clubs.

A lot of employers fed their workers, either through their cafeterias or by bringing food in from outside sources.

One issue all employers faced was the presence of employees' families at work. Schools were closed so children were everywhere. Many employers embraced this experience, while a few requested that employees keep their children and spouses at home.

One Hartford, Conn.-based employer that seemed to stand out in their efforts was health insurer Aetna Inc., which had an advantage. Their headquarters only briefly lost power during the storm.

There were several things the company did very well.

Business-continuity plan. Aetna was prepared for weather emergencies, disruptions to Aetna-operated facilities and situations where employees were impacted at home.

Communication. The company's event-management hotline informed employees that the office was open and employees were welcome to come in to get warm, shower and eat.

Flexibility. Aetna provided guidance to managers to deal with employees on a case-by-case basis.

"The effect of this storm was extraordinary ... and required us to think more broadly about steps we could take to support our employees," says Elease Wright, Aetna's senior vice president of human resources, who was named to HRE's HR Honor Roll in 2009.

Attendance policies were liberalized so affected employees were not penalized for absences related to weather and power outages, while, at the same time, employees were welcomed to come to the office during the weekends. The heat was kept at the normal weekday temperatures and the cafeteria served three hot meals a day.

Spontaneity. Aetna also nimbly responded to the presence of children in the company's headquarters.

Floyd Green, Aetna's vice president of community relations and urban marketing, says the company's "leaders were quick to support some organized programming," including asking local arts organizations to entertain several hundred children with special programs over a two-day period.

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Based on my experience, there were two additional strategies employers should take advantage of:

Employee-Assistance Programs. Many employers have EAPs or work/life programs in place. They are often underutilized.

Jennifer Hudson, a public relations manager for Chicago-based employee-assistance provider, ComPsych Corp., says her company provided information about emergency assistance, shelters and road closures to clients' snowstorm-impacted employees.

ComPsych also helped workers locate back-up generators and find lodging, including for an employee with animals who was being turned away from hotels.

Communication via Social Media. Employers should either establish -- or take advantage of already established -- Facebook pages to communicate with employees and their families.

Janet McNichol, the human resources director for the Rockville, Md.-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, had set up such a page to engage their employees in the wellness program. But, during last winter's snowstorms, Facebook became the first way employees found out about whether the office was closed.

Many business-continuity plans focus on actions to take when something happens to the company's physical plant or data-storage facilities. But HR leaders should also consider the challenges -- and the company's options -- when the business is up and running, but their employees are struggling.

The lights are back on in Connecticut and, as a result of this recent storm, many employers -- and HR executives in particular -- may be forever changed in the way they will support their employees the next time Mother Nature decides to play a trick on us.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

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