The possibility of employees missing work because of natural disasters has come into stark focus this year, with the massive workforce disruptions caused in the US by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the more than a billion dollars in damage done to the US economy by these and other weather-related disasters. There are definitely ways that HR can help when extreme weather strikes, but support for employees is typically handled in an ad hoc manner, and employment laws, like those relating to pay, don’t typically account for natural disasters. In the meantime, one US software company, Fog Creek, has announced that it is getting ahead of the problem and officially offering “climate leave” to its employees.
As CEO Anil Dash spelled out in a LinkedIn post last week, the decision was in part based on the New York company’s experience dealing with Hurricane Sandy back in 2011. The storm displaced most of Fog Creek’s staff and cut off power to its data center in lower Manhattan, and employees were only able to keep their collaboration-platform services online by running a bucket brigade of fuel to keep the generator running. The firm’s workforce is now much more remote, and this year, one of its employees was again forced from their home during Hurricane Irma. Though the company has continued to pay its employees during such events, Dash explains that they decided it was time to formalize the benefit:
[T]hese situations of being displaced by weather or environmental conditions are only going to become more common. As a company, we’re already 17 years old, and we want to be around for many, many years to come, so we look carefully at official reports that explain we’ll see increasingly violent storms and increasingly destructive wildfires. The simple conclusion is that if we’re not committing to taking care of our employees during extreme weather events, we’re not fulfilling our responsibilities to our team. Our past policy of “trust us, we’ll take care of you” needs to be formalized for the same reasons that any other HR policy gets formalized: having it in writing protects workers.
The new policy will offer employees up to five days of paid leave on account of extreme weather every year, and longer leaves will be allowed provided there is a state of emergency declared where the employee lives. (Dash also notes that they will have to track the leave manually, since they could find no payroll or compensation platforms that yet offered the classification.)
Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com
After a September jobs report marred by the impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, October’s monthly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the US labor market rapidly rebounding from these disasters, with non-farm employment rising by a seasonally adjusted 261,000 last month. Although this did not meet economists’ expectations of 315,000 new jobs, it was a huge improvement from September. Figures for that month were also revised upward from 33,000 jobs lost to 18,000 jobs gained, meaning the US remains on a record 85-month job growth streak.
Unemployment fell to 4.1 percent, its lowest level since December 2000, but wage growth was stagnant at 2.4 percent year-over-year, a slowdown over the previous month. “With the swings from the hurricanes now largely behind us, the longer-term challenge of wage growth returns to the foreground,” Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, commented to the Wall Street Journal.
The labor force participation rate also fell by 0.4 percentage points in October, to 62.7 percent, which suggests that even as the economy approaches nominally full employment, there remain many Americans who are neither working nor looking for work. Accordingly, re-engaging those labor force dropouts could become an increasingly important strategy for US organizations that want to expand their workforces in the current labor market.
“The bigger picture here is that the labor market’s fine,” Brett Ryan, an economist at Deutsche Bank, explains to the New York Times. Fine, however, is not necessarily great, as the labor force participation and wage figures suggest:
In another sign of the US labor market’s robustness, the number of Americans filing new unemployment claims fell last week to its lowest level in over 44 years, Reuters reported on Thursday:
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 222,000 for the week ended Oct. 14, the lowest level since March 1973, the Labor Department said. … Claims are declining as the impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma washes out of the data. The hurricanes, which lashed Texas, Florida and the Virgin Islands, boosted claims to an almost three-year high of 298,000 at the start of September.
A Labor Department official said claims for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico continued to be impacted by Irma and Hurricane Maria, which destroyed infrastructure. As a result the Labor Department was estimating claims for the islands.
The week’s massive decrease in claims was likely inflated by the Columbus Day holiday, but other data in the Labor Department’s report also indicate a very healthy labor market: The number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 16,000 to 1.89 million in the week ended October 7, which was the lowest level since December 1973, and the four-week moving average of continuing claims fell 22,750 to 1.91 million, the lowest since January 1974.
Reuters also highlighted a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia indicating strong employment in the manufacturing sector in the mid-Atlantic region this month, with the bank’s measure of factory employment rising 24 points to a record high of 30.6. That report’s average workweek index also increased, while no firms reported decreases in unemployment in October.
A Houston-area neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey (Eric V Overton/Shutterstock)
The US economy lost 33,000 jobs in September due to the destructive impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on Texas and Florida, falling far short of economists’ predictions of 90,000 new jobs, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, released Friday. The unemployment rate, however, fell from 4.4 to 4.2 percent, the lowest rate since February 2001, suggesting that the labor market is still fundamentally strong. Marketplace delves into the details of the report:
Last month’s drop was driven by huge losses in restaurants and bars, which shed 105,000 jobs, a sign of the damage to Florida’s tourism industry. Roughly 1.5 million people were unable to work last month because of the weather, the government said, the most in 20 years. Hourly workers who couldn’t work and missed a paycheck would have been counted as not working, thereby lowering September’s job total. That’s true even if those employees returned to work after the storm passed or will return.
The unemployment rate fell because it is calculated with a separate survey of households. That survey counted people as employed even if they were temporarily off work because of the storms. In fact, the proportion of adults who have jobs rose to 60.4 percent, the highest since January 2009. … “The weakness in payrolls was likely because of temporary hurricane effects. Other parts of the report were much stronger than expected,” wrote Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.
Average hourly wages rose 2.9 percent, but the Labor Department cautioned against reading too much into that figure, which was inflated by the fact that most of the jobs temporarily wiped out by the hurricanes were lower-paid. Overall, the Wall Street Journal reports, September’s jobs numbers leave the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates again later this year, undeterred by the disaster-induced dip in growth.
In one of the worst natural disasters in US history, Hurricane Harvey has dumped more than 11 trillion gallons of rain on the Houston metro area and other parts of southeast Texas, leading to catastrophic flooding throughout the region. While the city of Houston was not ordered to evacuate, most organizations in the city, including major employers like NASA’s Johnson Space Center, ConocoPhillips, and Waste Management, Inc., were closed on Monday and instructed employees to stay home, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some encouraged employees who were safe to work remotely from home. Many local businesses and national firms with a presence in the region, including major retail chains like Target and Walmart have closed their stores in the area and are participating in relief efforts by donating money or emergency supplies.
For organizations whose employees are affected by the hurricane, the first priority in the coming days and weeks is to communicate with employees about the status of their workplaces and projects, as well as benefits and resources available to them, as Amanda Eisenberg highlights at Employee Benefit News:
“The most important thing to communicate is what the employers are doing for the employees and the community,” says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health. “First of all, that help is on the way.”
Employers also are going to have to be flexible, she says. Employees need to know if they are expected to come into the workplace, and if they can’t, whether they can work remotely. Schools are likely to be closed, and relatives might have been relocated from nursing homes or hospitals to shelters. Employees might need access to childcare or eldercare, and companies should be in constant communication to relay those benefits, Heinen explains.