After Hurricane Ian, Employers Offer to Help

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When Hurricane Ian tore through Southwest Florida, human resources professionals raced to support their employees, as well as the communities they serve.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” said Stephanie Deiter, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources at YMCA of Southwest Florida, based in Venice, Fla. “The silver lining is when you see people helping each other,” whether they’re co-workers, neighbors or members of the community.

The hurricane blew 150 mph winds when it made landfall on September 28, accompanied by massive storm surge and torrential rain.

In Lee County, where the storm hit, more than 5,000 homes were reported destroyed, with another 13,000 sustaining major damage and 14,000 minor damage. The hurricane also flooded cars, washing some out to sea.

A “significant number” of employees at Lee Health, the region’s largest employer, had their homes damaged or destroyed, and many are also struggling with transportation and childcare issues, Mike Wukitsch said. , SHRM-SCP, the Chief Health System Officer. Two weeks after the storm hit, Lee Health was still identifying any employees who needed help.

Lee Health, one of the largest nonprofit public health systems in the state, has more than 14,000 employees and an additional 3,000 volunteers.

Although communication was impossible for the first 48 hours after the storm passed, some employees came to replace those who were already on site. “The character of the staff is really great,” Wukitsch said.

At the YMCA of Southwest Florida, which has more than 1,000 employees, the human resources department contacted more than 90% of employees within 10 days of the storm’s arrival, said Deiter, who also serves as a district director with HR Florida State Council, the state’s SHRM affiliate.

Deiter said one of his main goals was “to reach out to every employee,” to make sure everyone was safe. “We felt like communication was our key,” Deiter said, and the human resources department used software to send push notifications to staff so they could tag themselves safe from the storm.

HR staff also tried calling employees, she said, but in many cases cellphones and internet service were down.

When making phone calls, “I think it means so much to people to know that their employer cares,” Deiter said.

In some cases, staff even carried out wellness checks by knocking on the doors of other employees, she added.

One of the main goals was “to identify those with immediate needs” such as safe shelter, Deiter said, and the Venice branch of the YMCA temporarily served as a shelter for displaced employees and their families.

About 80 employee homes suffered significant damage or were destroyed. In one case, an employee’s garage door was blown off and the worker was afraid to leave her home unsafe. According to Deiter, two YMCA employees bought supplies out of their own pockets and barricaded the house.

“From devastation comes such humanity,” she said.

The United States YMCA also has an Employee Assistance Fund that workers can tap into for financial assistance for housing, living expenses and gas, she said.

At Lee Health, the human resources department has set up a hotline to help employees find available residences, such as rental properties and hotel rooms, Wukitsch said.

In addition to housing issues, employees also lost cars. Lyft and Hertz have offered free and discounted transportation to health system employees, he noted.

Schools were closed due to the hurricane and have recently begun to reopen.

For many employees, “the ability to work depends on the availability of childcare,” he said.

Lee Health’s acute care facilities remained open throughout the hurricane, and while the majority of its ambulatory care facilities have reopened, a few remain closed indefinitely.

The health system has decided to pay all employees, whether they are able to work or not, until October 15, Wukitsch said. “We are going to take care of people.

Lee Health also allowed hardship withdrawals from 403(b) accounts, he added, and United Way funds were used to help employees with issues such as paying for housing.

“The donations and community support have been great,” he said.

Employee assistance programs and spiritual services are available on-site at larger Lee Health facilities. “I think we’re still processing it,” Wukitsch said.

The YMCA opened its facilities as quickly as possible to serve as community centers where residents could shower, charge their phones or eat a meal. Employees are “putting their personal needs aside to help support the community,” Deiter said.

Kiosks have been set up at Lee Health acute care facilities to help direct people to available resources, such as through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Despite the impacts of the storm, Lee Health resumed orientation for new recruits. Some employees can’t work due to personal issues and others have left the area, so “we need to make sure we bring in renewed resources,” Wukitsch said. “We must continue.”

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.

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