When disaster strikes, ensure corporate relief efforts are legal, effective

By Richard D. Alaniz

The images of devastating natural disasters can be haunting – from the children orphaned in January’s earthquake in Haiti, to the flooded streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to the havoc of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, to the 8.8 earthquake in Chile.
 
The January 12th earthquake in Haiti affected more than 3 million people, killing an estimated 220,000, and leaving an estimated 1.2 million Haitians homeless, according to the American Red Cross. In the face of such suffering, it’s natural for companies and their employees to want to help with money, supplies, services, and time.
 
However, employers that have workers who want to get involved in relief efforts while on the job must proceed carefully. It is critical to ensure that any company-sponsored charitable efforts are legal, transparent, effective, and consistent with the company’s business ethos and approach.
 
Donating money, time, goods, and services can raise complicated issues – particularly when they are directed toward those suffering in foreign countries where the laws, traditions, and infrastructure are remarkably different than what most U.S. employers are used to.
 
The story of the missionaries who went to Haiti to help orphaned children and ended up in a Port-au-Prince jail charged with kidnapping has received a great deal of attention in the media. A lesser-known, but perhaps more common, situation recently unfolded when a group of volunteers from a well-regarded American medical school rushed to Haiti, but were so poorly prepared that they needed to seek resources from other volunteer groups. Unprepared volunteers can bring more trouble than help, siphoning away desperately needed food and shelter from the very people those would-be volunteers are striving to aid.         
 
If your company does not have a formal policy regarding charitable relief efforts, now is the time to consider developing one. If you do have a policy in place, this is a good time to review it and update it as necessary. You also should be sure that human resources staff, managers, and supervisors are aware of the policy. The policy should be posted or otherwise communicated regularly to all employees.
 
Dealing with cash
 
Many employers have adopted non-solicitation policies and refuse to allow employees to sell items or request donations via the company’s e-mail system or in the break areas.
 
If your company has a non-solicitation policy in place, consider specifically how relief efforts fit into it. If the policy is very strict, it may be a violation for employees to make any kind of request for donations or relief efforts at the office or job-site. Policies can be written to make exceptions for certain events or in certain situations, but it’s important to develop an airtight list of exceptions. If you decide to ease the policy for one disaster, an employee may complain that you are showing favoritism by ignoring his or her favorite charitable organization.Allowing exceptions to the policy could leave you open to accepting other types of solicitations, including those that relate to unionization.
 
Once you clarify your policy, you also need to emphasize that any donations are strictly voluntary. You don’t want employees to feel pressured to give to one particular cause or organization.In order to maintain control and transparency, it might be best for your company to manage and direct all relief efforts, rather than allowing employees to do it on their own.
 
Non-Cash Efforts
 
While cash may be king in many situations, there are ways for financially strapped employees (and their employers) to contribute in meaningful ways that don’t require money. When employees have time off banked, you could explore allowing them to donate their unused vacation and sick time. Such a policy should be reviewed by legal and human resources departments because the logistics can be complicated, but this alternative allows for a creative and very personal way to donate. Companies also might consider allowing some flexibility when it comes to beginning or ending the work day, so that employees can participate in volunteer and fundraising efforts outside the office or job-site.
 
Providing services directly
 
In the face of horrible circumstances, many employees may have the urge to jump on the first plane, fly to the disaster site, and help people directly. Despite their eagerness to provide hands-on assistance, many employees are not well-suited to the conditions or the demands of providing relief in a desperate situation in a foreign country. It’s important to carefully consider whether your employees will be a help or a hindrance.However, those in the private sector might be perfectly positioned to offer desperately needed expertise and talents to government and non-profit efforts.
 
For example, Microsoft Corp. has been working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide IT support and subject matter expertise in Haiti. Microsoft also has publicly released an experimental machine translator for Haitian Creole to help bridge the language barrier. Deutsche Post DHL, the shipping company, quickly sent a logistics team to Port-au-Prince to help manage the situation at the country’s main airport, which suffered significant damage in the earthquake. In cooperation with the United Nations, the DHL team has worked to improve the flow of inbound freight and help distribute relief goods.
 
If you are considering organizing a corporate-sponsored trip, be sure that you are offering something of value and that your employees will not be a drain on an already over-burdened environment. Aligning your efforts with government efforts or a knowledgeable and well-established relief agency should be a requirement before considering any trip, unless your company already has a presence in Haiti or any other country where you are launching relief efforts. It’s extremely important that your company evaluate the groups your employees will work with once they are on the ground. Will your employees have adequate shelter and food while they are there? If there is civil unrest or a disease outbreak, how will you get your people out? Will the organization be able to provide the necessary translation and communications services?
 
It’s important to consider practical issues as well, such as wage and hour considerations and workers’ compensation. Be sure to check with state and federal agencies to find out whether your employees will need to be compensated for their time on the relief trip. Contact your insurance company first to find out what type of coverage your employees will have and what your carrier recommends. It might make sense to have employee-volunteers sign a waiver or release form, but remember that your company might still be on the hook if an employee is hurt or discriminated against while on the trip.
 
Before you allow any employees to sign up, be sure they understand what types of situations they will encounter. Most might not be prepared emotionally for what they find. The degree of damage and suffering they encounter, combined with difficult living conditions, might prove overwhelming for some.
 
Employees also should understand the health risks they might come across. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides an extensive list of recommendations for those traveling to Haiti for relief work. While most Americans may be up to date on more common vaccinations, it’s doubtful they have recently had pre-exposure rabies vaccines or anti-malarial treatments. According to the CDC, diseases such as tuberculosis were extremely common in Haiti before the earthquake. The risks of communicable diseases will be much greater now.
 
Along with extensive food, water, and hygiene supplies, the CDC recommends being prepared for heat-related illnesses. Be sure your employees are dressed for tropical conditions – but remind them that halter tops and cut-off shorts probably will not be safe or appropriate.
 
The worst situations can bring out the best in people. But before you allow your employees to raise money or send resources to troubled areas, it’s important to make sure those charitable impulses are responsible, legal, and helpful. By planning ahead, you can ensure that your company and your employees can make a meaningful difference to those in need whenever and wherever the need arises.
 
About the author:
Richard D. Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz and Schraeder, a national labor and employment firm based in Houston. He has been at the forefront of labor and employment law for more than thirty years, including stints with the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board. Alaniz is a prolific writer on labor and employment law and conducts frequent seminars to client companies and trade associations across the country. Questions about this article can be addressed to the author at (281) 833-2200 or ralaniz@alaniz-schraeder.com.
 
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