IMPACT

Climate Change Is Threatening Our Jobs — And Most Companies Are Doing Nothing

Few companies have clear “climate leave” policies setting out what workers can expect in the face of worsening disasters.

Hurricane Dorian was expected to hit Florida around Tuesday, Sept. 3. After a devastating season last year, residents feared the worst as they watched the Category 2 storm make its way towards them after inundating the Bahamas. As a precaution, one call center in Orlando closed for two days when the storm was expected to make landfall, giving its workers paid time off.

For one employee, Javier Torres, 25, that wasn’t enough time to prepare for the storm. So, he decided to take that Monday off as well to ensure he could properly stock up on supplies and move over to his father’s hurricane-ready house 30 minutes away. But when he returned to work that Friday ― after the storm grazed the state’s coastline, bypassing central Florida ― he found out his attendance record had taken a hit.

Torres had asked his supervisor ahead of time if he could use his personal leave to prepare for the hurricane. But because Monday fell on Labor Day, he was penalized due to a company policy discouraging workers from taking time off on a holiday. Torres felt he was being unfairly punished despite his company having taken some proactive steps to support employees ahead of the storm.

Thanks to climate change, storms are getting stronger, lasting longer, and becoming more frequent. And in hurricane-prone places like Florida, or wildfire-choked California, it means companies are grappling with how best to accommodate their employees. 

Few have developed clear policies for what workers can expect in the face of natural disasters, and for employees like Torres, this can leave them facing confusion, uncertainty and the possibility of lost wages, a blemished attendance record, or even termination. 

But things may slowly be changing. In 2017, the New York City-headquartered technology company Fog Creek Software — now called Glitch — announced a new “climate leave” policy. Anil Dash, Glitch’s CEO, realized the company needed it when remote employees fleeing the wildfires in California that year asked if they could have time off to deal with the disasters. 

The new policy provided five days of paid leave specifically for dealing with the impacts of a natural disaster. He would have given his employees the time off anyway, Dash wrote in a Medium article announcing the change, but writing it down provided them with certainty and peace of mind. 

This year, some of Glitch’s employees have leaned on the policy again when wildfires swept across Northern California. “We have a number of people in California right now and they feel reassured that amidst the terrifying aspect of having to evacuate there’s at least that reassurance,” said Dash. “Your job will be there.”

But most companies are reactive when it comes to natural disasters, figuring out what to do when the extreme weather is on its way or has already passed ― rather than establishing protocol well ahead of any event happening. This can mean a lot of uncertainty for employees, like Torres and his fellow call center workers. 

Businesses were forced to close in Florida ahead of Hurricane Dorian making its way towards the state after stalling over the
Businesses were forced to close in Florida ahead of Hurricane Dorian making its way towards the state after stalling over the Bahamas.

Torres has worked in three different centers and all operate in similar ways, he says: There is a company hotline that employees subscribe to that lets them know whether to come into work or not. 

The hotline is an opt-in program that provides employees with company updates, allowing managers to connect quickly with all employees in the face of an impending storm. But updates typically only come a few days in advance, says Torres, giving little time for people to prepare. 

In Torres’ opinion, these companies are waiting as long as possible to decide when to close the office, potentially prioritizing productivity at the expense of preparation. 

“It’s really frustrating, actually,” Torres said. “I think it’s inconsiderate to have us working until the last minute possible. It makes hurricane prep harder than it should be.” 

Despite the attention Glitch received when it announced its policy, few companies have adopted similar climate leave policies. Rich Fuerstenberg, a consultant at the international HR consulting firm Mercer, says there’s been no interest among the various companies he works with to adopt such a policy.  

“We have mentioned it to a number of employers and none have expressed interest,” Fuerstenberg wrote in an email to HuffPost. Most employers are much more concerned with what they see as more immediate needs such as paid parental leave and managing disabilities than they are with climate change leave. 

But while most employers may not be accounting for it, people are already paying for climate change. In each of the last five years, the United States has been hit with 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters — including hurricanes, wildfires and inland floods — causing more than $500 billion of damage across the country in just the last five years.

The Camp fire last year, for instance, which killed 85 people and displaced around 50,000 others, was the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2018, causing a total of $16.5 billion in losses. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 ― the fourth biggest storm in U.S. history ― cost New Jersey $70.2 billion in economic damages. Meanwhile, the record-breaking flooding across the Midwest this spring is expected to cost more than $3 billion in damages, as farmers bear the brunt with lost crops and little insurance coverage to help. 

According to a jobs report released in September 2017, businesses across the Southeastern United States lost 33,000 jobs that month alone, largely due to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that year. Some 1.5 million people were unable to work as a result of the storms, according to the government — the highest number in 20 years.

Signs asking for a "buy out" hang in front of a home damaged by Hurricaine Sandy on Staten Island, New York.
Signs asking for a "buy out" hang in front of a home damaged by Hurricaine Sandy on Staten Island, New York.

There are a number of ways a company can deal with natural disasters beyond a formal climate leave policy, said Fuerstenberg. In recent years, many companies have paid employees for time lost without an official policy or allowed people to use vacation time or other accrued paid time off to deal with disasters. 

Some companies also have “disruption” policies that will pay employees for time lost because of business closure, said Carol Sladek, a consultant at the HR consulting firm Aon Health Solutions.

For example, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts includes a similar provision for its 38,000 unionized employees during “flood, hurricane, or other catastrophic events,” providing up to five days of pay for shifts missed “due to business closure.” (The Walt Disney Company did not respond to a request for comment.)  

Mercer has also seen more and more companies of all kinds and sizes adopting “holistic paid time off” policies, said Fuerstenberg, where employers provide a certain number of days off without categorizing them as “paid” or “sick” leave. Others have adopted unlimited paid time off policies that would allow employees the flexibility of dealing with a natural disaster without having to juggle multiple paid leave policies. 

Overall, it seems companies have no consistent approach to dealing with disasters. Mitch Steiger, legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, said he’s never even heard about climate leave and natural disaster leave policies. 

“Obviously, it’s something that does need to exist,” Steiger said. In recent years, he has heard “horror stories” about workers who lived in an evacuation zone and had to flee the fires, but were still expected to go in to work because their place of work was outside the burn area. 

At the state and federal level, there are a few legal protections for workers who lose work because of natural disasters, primarily in the form of unemployment insurance and federal disaster unemployment assistance, says Maurice Emsellem, an unemployment aid expert at the National Employment Law Project, a legal advocacy group that focuses on fair employment laws.  

But this aid is often distributed unequally, leaving out vulnerable populations. For example, while the average U.S. citizen recovering from a disaster receives $26, tribal citizens receive only $3 per person, according to High Country News. There’s also little to stop employers from penalizing employees for not showing up as a result of a disaster, Emsellem said. 

Denise Diaz, executive director of the advocacy organization Central Florida Jobs with Justice, said while few companies in central Florida have formal natural disaster policies, she’s noticed a cultural shift in the region since Hurricane Irma pummeled the state two years ago. 

Ahead of Hurricane Dorian this year, more businesses adjusted schedules or closed early to give their employees adequate time to gather supplies and prepare for an impending storm. This is better for the companies, too. Experts in emergency management have found giving employees time before a disaster to prepare enables them to be better equipped to return to work once the threat passes, said Diaz.

Diaz said she thinks the issue of company planning for natural disasters could be an important one for Florida in the coming years. This year, it felt like there was a new hurricane threat every other week in the state, she said. Formal hurricane policies and plans could help both employers and employees be more resilient while dealing with this new climate normal.

Farmers keep working as a wildfire on a hill burns in the background in Camarillo, California.
Farmers keep working as a wildfire on a hill burns in the background in Camarillo, California.

Even if these policies were adopted on a broad scale, however, they still wouldn’t help every worker whose livelihood is threatened by natural disasters. 

Day laborers like housekeepers and agricultural workers, as well as undocumented workers, would not be covered if they lose days of work during and in the aftermath of a disaster, said Christy Lubin, executive director of Graton Day Labor Center, a nonprofit that supports day laborers in Northern California. These workers are already economically vulnerable because many work seasonal or even daily contract jobs that don’t provide benefits or economic security. Their immigration status may also make them ineligible for unemployment benefits and hesitant to seek disaster relief.

Gig economy workers and contract employees would likely not be covered either, said Diaz. This can mean a loss of crucial income for some of the already most economically vulnerable workers, said Lubin, who are often immigrants and people of color. 

A lack of federal protections and reliance on daily wages also puts many of these workers in the position of risking their lives and health to work in dangerous conditions. During last year’s wildfire season, farmworkers in California, many of them undocumented migrants, were still working outside without face masks, breathing in the toxic smoke as the Woolsey fire raged nearby. 

And this fall, housekeepers, gardeners and other domestic workers showed up to work in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Los Angeles, only to find their employers had fled the nearby Getty fire and failed to tell them.

It will require more than revised HR policies to protect these workers, who are often protected by few federal standards. Even workers like Torres may still feel unable to stand up to their employers to demand clearer policies in the face of danger. But Glitch’s Dash is hopeful that even if companies aren’t talking about it publicly, most want to take care of their workers on the worst days of their lives. “I think most employers want to do the right thing,” he said.

CORRECTION: the piece was amended to correct the name of Aon Health Solutions, which the previous version referred to as Aon Hewitt.

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