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Hurricane Florence: Eight emergency response tips Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Hurricane Florence: Eight emergency response tips

Businesses along the Carolina coast will be impacted hardest

As residents in the South prepare for Hurricane Florence, scheduled to make landfall on Thursday, legal experts say restaurants should have an emergency response plan that covers everything from employee scheduling to understanding insurance coverage.

Forecasters say coastal flooding and winds could result in devastating damage. 

“Life-threatening, catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding is possible over portions of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic states from late this week into early next week, as #Florence is expected to slow down as it approaches the coast and move inland,” according to a tweet by the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center.

Nation’s Restaurant News talked to Ogletree Deakins, a South Carolina-based labor and employment law firm that represents employers.

Here’s what attorney Hal A. Shillingstad is suggesting restaurants consider before, during and after a major natural disaster.

Triage tasks: Review your emergency response plan. If you don’t have one, “this isn’t the week to write your response plan,” Shillingstad said. But, you can triage tasks by dividing responsibilities among managers. One group, for example, should be responsible for operating the business during the storm (if the company decides to do that). Another group should be a crisis management team. That team deals directly with preparation and fallout tied to the storm, and its first consideration should be communication with employees.

Employees and scheduling: The restaurant should have a clear plan for communicating with their workforce. Regular messages should be sent updating staff on scheduling, hours of operation, and employee assistance programs (such as contact numbers for emotional support programs or counseling). If you’re going to close the restaurant, prompt communication with hourly employees is especially important because restaurants “don’t want hourly employees to show up and expect to be paid,” Shillingstad said. A crisis phone number should be provided for employees to ask questions. Communicate by email, phone, text or through the company’s scheduling app.

“The key is to make sure they are notified promptly,” Shillingstad said.

Notifying Customers: If you run a chain, let customers know which restaurants in the system will be closed during the storm. Inform them through your various platforms such as web sites and social media accounts. Multi-unit franchisees should do the same. Shillingstad recommended doing whatever you can to inform the public because “people will be using their phone to try and see what’s open.”

If catering orders or other pre-scheduled events, such as private parties, are affected by the storm, notify customers in a reasonable amount of time. Also, check with your suppliers on deliveries. The restaurant might be prepared to get the job done, but if you can’t get a delivery from suppliers, then the event might be impacted anyway.

If a special events contract is written correctly, it will have an exclusion for lack of performance in the event of a natural disaster.

The Human Element: If you decide to stay open, be mindful of the human impact of a natural disaster. Your staff might need time off to care for their homes and loved ones. “The company should be mindful of the burden they place on managers. These employees will have their own obligations,” Shillingstad said.

Travelling to work might also be difficult. If an employee cannot make it to work due to disaster-related transportation issues, that may be considered an absence for personal reasons under the Fair Labor Standards Act if the employee doesn’t work from home.

Access to electronic data: Check with your I.T. department to ensure that you have access to electronic data and back-up power to maintain operations. “Your information technology department should focus on ensuring that all electronic data is backed up, preserved, and accessible,” Shillingstad said.

Insurance: Understand your coverage. Track all extra expenses incurred, such as renting generators or barricades, as they might be recoverable under certain policies. Inventory your perishables as any food losses will likely be covered by insurance.

Workplace Safety: If you’re asking employees to work, make sure they are entering a safe premise. Employers are responsible for protecting their employees from unreasonable dangers.

Employment laws: Nonexempt, or hourly, employees are paid for work performed. Employers are not obligated to compensate them if they close the restaurant. Exempt employees — typically managers — who work a portion of the week must still be paid for an entire week. If the restaurant is closed for one week or more and no work is performed, the employer has no obligation to pay that employee if he or she does not perform any work.

Some of your employees may be volunteer responders or members of the National Guard. Job protections are in place for those employees, so employers should be aware of that, Shillingstad said.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @FastFoodMaven

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