A Delicate Balance Business Needs and Employees’ Lives in Chaos

By Susan Ladika

Oct. 22, 2004

When Hurricane Frances slammed into Florida’s east coast on Labor Day weekend, the powerful storm ripped three-quarters of the roof off Ann Gates’ house. Water poured down the walls, ruining furniture in the den. Once the storm had passed, a team from her employer, Health First, was at the executive assistant’s door, helping her husband tack a tarp on the roof to prevent further water intrusion and hauling undamaged furniture to a company warehouse for storage until the Gateses’ battered home could be repaired.

    It was a response that Ann Gates hadn’t expected. She had been working through the storm, and when she heard the news that her home had been damaged, she burst into tears on the job. Word spread through Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, where Gates works, and the company’s vice president for human resources told her, “We’re here for you. We’re going to help you,” she recalls. “I knew he was a kind man, but I had no idea what he meant when he said that.”

Take your pick: job or family?
Health First, which is based in nearby Rockledge and operates three hospitals on Florida’s east coast, went far and above the call of duty when it came to assisting employees walloped by Hurricane Frances, as well as Hurricane Jeanne, which tore through the area just three weeks later.

    With four hurricanes pounding the state in six weeks, critical services such as hospitals, utility companies and government offices had to perform quite a juggling act. These organizations had to remain up and running and keep employees focused on their jobs, while at the same time taking into account workers’ concerns about their families, pets and homes.

    “We never want to put associates in a situation where they feel like they have to choose between their job and their family,” says Dennis Vouglas, Health First’s director of employee relations.

    The company relies heavily on advance planning, and its 6,000 employees are divided into pre-storm, storm and post-storm teams, which determines whether they will work before, during or after the storm. All workers have the opportunity to secure their homes and evacuate before the hurricane is scheduled to hit. Single parents, those with children under age 2, and people caring for elderly parents can be granted exemptions so they don’t have to work during the storm, Vouglas says.

Still tallying cost
Even the hurricanes’ conclusions didn’t return things to normal. Many school districts were closed for days on end because of storm damage or lost utilities, and parents were left struggling to figure out how to care for their children while they worked. Health First provided 24-hourchild care for those under the age of 21. “It really does a lot to increase peace of mind,” Vouglas says.

    To further assist employees, Health First put tarps on the roofs of more than 300 employees’ homes, provided temporary housing in its newly opened hospice building for several families who had lost their homes, handed out more than $100,000 in cash advances to those with financial needs, and provided transportation for people whose cars were damaged.

    Health First is still tallying the cost of these services, but had no contingency budget for these disasters, Vouglas says. “We felt that it was simply the right thing to do, to provide for our people in time of need.”

“We can’t compromise safety”
Jacqueline Byers, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, says one of her graduate students conducted a survey of 30 nurses in four hospitals after Hurricane Floyd pounded the state in 1999. Respondents said they were concerned about their families, pets and elderly parents during the storm. They also complained that they weren’t paid for all the hours they spent on-site and that at some hospitals, beds and showers were provided for physicians and administrators, but not for the nurses. “It makes the nurses feel devalued,” Byers says. “Nurses can’t provide good care when they don’t feel good themselves.”

    She says the key is to communicate beforehand, so hospital administrators know their employees’ life situations. While hospitals may expect everyone to report for duty, “that’s not realistic. Not with the sandwich generation. People are being torn in so many different directions.”

    At two Florida Hospital facilities on the east coast, about two dozen employees were fired or suspended for not reporting for work during Hurricane Frances. “The nature of the business we’re in doesn’t allow us to be unresponsive,” spokeswoman Desiree Paradis-Warner told the Orlando Sentinel. “We can’t compromise patient safety.”

Communication: a two-way street
In St. Lucie County, which was slammed by Frances and Jeanne, two county employees were fired for not showing up for work. One got in his motor home and drove to Ohio, and didn’t contact his supervisor for 17 days, says Carl Holeva, the county’s human resources director.

    Other employees said they had nowhere to stay as the storms neared, and requestedleave to travel out of state. The county approved it, telling workers to keep in touch. “If people just disappeared, never requested leave, never sought approval to leave, we’d look at that a little differently,” Holeva says.

    At St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, employees from the three campuses can bring their families to the hospital if they have nowhere else to go, and pet care was put in place for the first time this year. “It was important to one of our team members,” says Pat Teeuwen, director of team resources. “We do these things so we can take the pressure off [employees].”

    Those not directly involved in patient care pitched in by tending to children or making sandwiches for employees and visitors. “The most important thing iscommunication,” Teeuwen says. “We make sure we communicate to our team members the types of services we have available for them.”

    The hospital also has an emergency assistance fund, which is financed by annual employee campaigns. Those who suffered losses during the hurricanes could apply for assistance with housing, utilities and food.

    At Florida Power & Light, which provides electricity to customers primarily on Florida’s east coast and southwestern region, meals were brought in for those working extended shifts to get the lights back on. “Food shopping was a big issue. There wasn’t a whole lot in grocery stores,” says spokeswoman Pat Davis. Some employees volunteered to do minor home repairs for fellow workers, while others brought ice and drinks to employees’ families. “We’re asking a lot during that time, so we really try to take care of our own.”

    In St. Lucie County, the county government has been liberal in granting leave for those whose homes sustained storm damage and who now must meet with insurance adjusters and building contractors. “It’s a trying time even now,” Holeva says. “People need to make a living. At the same time, they want to take care of their homes. We try to balance that as much as possible.”

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida.

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