Alberta employers help region dry out

Historic flooding good time to reflect on emergency plans, says HRIA
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/09/2013

It was the worst flood in Alberta’s history. At the peak of the disaster in June, more than 30 communities were in a state of local emergency, evacuating up to 120,000 people from their homes and closing thousands of businesses.

But the historic floods are a learning experience for Alberta and its employers, said Nora Molina, executive director of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta (HRIA) in Calgary.

“It will be a really good time for companies to reflect and look at this unprecedented event and ask, ‘Do we need to make any adjustments to our disaster recovery plan or our emergency response plan?’” she said.

“I’m sure HR departments are going to be having some opportunity to have influence there — they’ll be busy.”

When ATB Financial made the decision to close 16 branches due to the floods, its emergency preparedness team immediately sent an email to all employees, said Dave Mowat, president and CEO of ATB Financial in Edmonton, which has 170 branches across the province and 5,200 employees.

Most of the company’s 16 locations were closed for three or four days, but the High River branch was closed for more than two weeks.

ATB Financial also posted regular updates on its intranet site, which employees can access from home, and on its Facebook page and Twitter feed.

“The combination of being decisive and communicating frequently and quite honestly helped us,” said Mowat. “Lots of times, the impulse is to send (information) to who needs to know, but by sending it to everyone, you get a very knowledgeable workforce who can then solve problems you don’t even know you’re going to have to solve.”

Having a plan around employee communication is one of the most important components of an emergency preparedness plan, said Tom Ross, partner at law firm McLennan Ross in Calgary.

In the event they cannot reach employees electronically, many companies have a “call-down” process in place where managers are responsible for notifying staff.

“From an HR standpoint, it’s really ‘Do you have a current contact list in place for employees that you can reach out and have those connections?’” said Molina.

As the City of Calgary dealt with the aftermath of the flood, Mayor Naheed Nenshi requested that all employers encourage employees to work from home, with the exception of essential staff.

Emergency preparedness plans should address the ability to operate or work at a location other than the primary place of work, said Ross.

“Depending on the systems and the type of work you’re doing, that can be very easy for some employers and extremely difficult or impossible for others. But the plan has to address to what extent that’s possible and can be accommodated.”

Employee support

To support employees who were recovering from the floods, ATB Financial offered $5,000 for any associates or retirees who were impacted. The criteria was pretty broad and it was completely in the hands of supervisors to determine who would receive the money — which was very effective, said Mowat.

“It got the money going literally within hours and it didn’t create this bureaucratic lineup,” he said. “You know all your supervisors, branch managers, vice-presidents — and they won’t make bad decisions in that case.”

The company also wanted to make sure employees evacuated from their homes had places to stay. It put the word out asking if anyone would offer up their home and, within one hour, 100 employees responded, said Mowat.

Cargill, a food producer and marketer, has raised more than $25,000 from fundraising efforts and personal employee contributions to help employees directly impacted by the floods. While the company’s beef plant in High River was not affected, about 15 per cent of the plant’s 2,000 employees were, said Brigitte Burgoyne, communications manager in Winnipeg.

Employees at the plant set up a clothing and supply drive for co-workers and their families who were displaced from their homes. And Cargill made beef product donations to employees, volunteers and residents.

Community support

Many employers went the extra mile to help with flood relief. Tim Hortons made a special “Alberta Rose” doughnut and donated all the proceeds — $360,000 — to the Red Cross for flood relief.

Countless companies made sizable donations as well, including $500,000 from Imperial Oil, $300,000 from Enmax, $200,000 from Canadian Pacific and $100,000 from Manulife Financial.

A number of employers gave employees one or two days off to help in some way with the cleanup, said Molina. At one point, the Calgary Police called for 600 volunteers at McMahon Stadium — 7,000 showed up.

Oil and gas company NAL Resources put together a volunteer program and encouraged employees to go out with their team to help with flood relief, said Angèle Mullins, director of human resources and administration in Calgary.

One consultant at the 250-employee company used NAL’s heavy duty pumps to remove water from neighbours’ homes. To support his efforts, NAL hired a company to come from Grande Prairie, Alta., to bring in even more pumps and workers to help out.

Once businesses are back up and running, it’s important for employers to continue to provide support. NAL reminded employees about its employee assistance program (EAP) and managers offered as much flexibility as possible, said Mullins.

Many HR professionals have been reaching out to employees to find out what they need and make sure their well-being is taken care of, said Molina.

If some employees are struggling to come back to work, either physically or emotionally, employers should encourage them to take vacation time, personal leave or allow for an unpaid leave, said Ross.

Payroll

The most frequent inquiry HRIA received from its members was “What should our company do about payroll?” said Molina. Unless it is specifically outlined in the employment contract or in a collective agreement, the Employment Standards Act does not require an employer to pay employees in the event of a business closure due to a natural disaster, she said.

But many employers are trying to pay employees if they can. There are several questions they need to consider including the disruption to work and the impact on business revenue, said Molina.

“An office that’s been closed a couple of days but didn’t have any impact on revenue, people were paid,” she said. “But if your business is closed indefinitely because of disaster and it’s destroyed… or you’re a restaurant and you don’t have three days’ worth of revenue that would normally cover your costs, how do you make payroll?”

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