As a union board, it's critical that you respect workers' rights during natural disasters and prepare to offer the support they need as they recover. Not only do natural disasters pose a threat to member health and safety on the job, but they can also be a difficult time personally for members facing injury, the death of a loved one or the destruction of their property.
Preparing Members for a Natural Disaster
The first step in preparing members for a natural disaster is to develop a communication plan that includes how members will be kept informed of emergency work closures and modified operations, as well as where they can go with questions. Depending on the situation, your members may have either found shelter close by or been evacuated, and they may lack access to traditional communication methods. When you develop your disaster plan, let members know not only what updates they can expect to receive and when, but also how messages will be distributed. This plan should be reviewed and updated regularly.
Next, ensure that members understand their rights based on federal and state law, as well as their collective bargaining agreement. Members must be provided a safe workplace under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) regulations, and they have the right to refuse to return to work if they believe the worksite is unsafe. Members may also be entitled to time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or work modifications under the Americans With Disabilities Act due to an injury after a disaster. The federal government provides a wealth of information the union can distribute.
Overcoming Challenges During a Natural Disaster
Reaching your members can be particularly difficult in the wake of a natural disaster, especially if traditional methods of communication are down. Your disaster plan should involve various means of communication, including email, texts, phone calls, social media, apps and even hard copy messages posted at job sites.
Members may find it difficult to return to work due to transportation issues, injury or personal concerns at home. Remind your members that the union is there to protect their best interests, and educate them on their rights regarding time off.
When a natural disaster strikes, your members will probably worry about how they will be paid. Federal laws dictate who must be paid — and how much — following a disaster. This varies based on factors such as the member's status with the employer, whether the member took time off and if the job site was closed. Give your members contact information for union representatives who can assist them if their compensation is delayed or incorrect.
Providing Relief and Assistance After the Disaster
Your health insurance plan should provide robust coverage for members and their dependents, whether they're seeking emergency care, a specialist or a counselor after a natural disaster. Ahead of an anticipated weather event — and in the days following — remind your members of the coverage offered and how they can find care. Encourage members to seek the medical assistance they need after a disaster rather than waiting until an injury becomes a chronic concern.
Check in regularly to make sure your members are safe and to direct them toward organizations that can provide aid, such as government agencies, shelters or community groups. During recovery, focus your communication on the next steps members can expect. Work with employers to answer questions about when members need to report to work and whether damage was done to the worksite. Some members may want to handle their recovery on their own. In that case, keep your board and union representatives visible so those members know where to go for help if they want it at a later time.
Once worksites are safe and members begin to return, continue communicating on a regular basis and encourage members to focus on a normal, daily routine. Depending on the circumstances, proper nutrition and rest may be especially important as members recover, and they should again be reminded of the tools at their disposal to help in the post-disaster period, including medical assistance, time off or community services. Recognize that disaster recovery can take weeks, months or even years, and that all members will require different levels of assistance.
A natural disaster can significantly alter a person's health and livelihood, which is why it's important for the union to recognize the role it can play in preparing and providing ongoing support for members. Advance preparation and consistent communication will go a long way toward helping your members feel supported—and getting them back to work safely.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.