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Job impact mixed for survivors

BY SUSAN KIM | ORLANDO | October 18, 1999

ORLANDO (Oct. 18, 1999) -- Florida residents waiting for Hurricane Irene's flood waters to recede or venturing out into a difficult commute could face mixed reactions from their employers.

For example, Disney's policy toward lost workdays due to Irene's predecessor, Hurricane Floyd, may seem as innocuous as its animated characters.

"As you know, we closed our parks for the first time in history,"

said Disney spokesperson Renee Callahan. That meant the majority of Disney's 55,000 Florida employees -- whom Callahan referred to as "cast members" -- missed a day-and-a-half of work when Hurricane Floyd skirted the Florida coast in September.

"Our salaried cast members were paid regular wages, and our hourly

wage earners could take a sick day or vacation day," she said, adding

that she could not reveal how many of the 55,000 employees were

hourly wage earners who may work in food and beverage service, or as

park greeters or ride operators.

But Fred Morris, executive director of the Florida Council of

Churches, thinks Disney is taking its employees for a ride. "That

policy is typical and dreadful," he said. "A company like Disney does

some progressive things but at the same time is not about to pay

people when they don't have to."

What makes 'good business sense,' he added, isn't always most humane.

"How many of those hourly wage earners even have vacation or sick

days? The loss of a couple days wages is a serious hole for some

people."

He added that, if large and highly visible corporations refuse to

assist employees in the wake of disaster, then smaller companies

won't see the need, either.

While some corporations are known for inflexible disaster-related

policies toward employees, others have adopted a more

employee-friendly stance.

Darden Restaurants, which operates Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and

Bahama Breeze restaurants, paid its employees for time missed because

of Hurricane Floyd. "When the unusual strength of Hurricane Floyd

required us to close restaurants, our employees were able to go home

to their families, but were paid for the time they would have

worked," said Richard Walsh, senior vice president for corporate

relations.

In addition, employees who suffered financial losses and property

damage were aided by a company-sponsored fund that generated

thousands of dollars overnight.

"When disaster strikes, you have to move quickly, locally, and

personally," added Walsh.

He also said that Darden's corporate structure -- essentially 1,100

businesses and some 115,000 employees -- means it has the flexibility

to act swiftly and on a case-by-case basis.

Other companies fired employees who missed work due to

disaster-related reasons. Health First, which operates three

hospitals in Brevard County, Fla., fired 32 workers and reprimanded

another 70 for failing to show up at work during the peak of Floyd's

threat, according to a report in the Daytona News Journal, which also

reported that a Volusia County, Fla. worker faces firing for failing

to report to work after evacuating inland.

Both Health First and Volusia County maintained that the terminated

employees violated a preset policy indicating they should report to

work, even in the event of disaster, although the workers say they

had no idea they'd be fired.

In nearly a complete reversal of such policies, AT&T gave 165

employees a day off to volunteer in New Jersey just after Hurricane

Floyd devastated the communities of Manville and Bound Brook.

"The employees worked all day, and AT&T paid for lunch, too," said

Lynn Askew, a disaster response coordinator with Lutheran Disaster

Response. "That is how a company should act."

But another New Jersey resident, who did not want to share her name

or employer for fear of reprisal, volunteered to help with hurricane

response and was not granted time off.

"So I've been volunteering on my own time," she said. "I work for

what I consider a typical corporation. That's why I think retired

folks are sometimes the people to help disaster survivors. They don't

have to worry about losing their jobs!"

In Del Rio, a small Texas community devastated by flash floods last

year, the Rev. John Feierabend, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, said

that, although some employers refused to pay for missed workdays

caused by the disaster, there were more who reacted with compassion.

"I think many employers knew that employees wouldn't be too

productive because their minds were on their lost loved ones and

ruined homes," he said. "I would encourage employers to have

compassion for their employees in the wake of disaster. There are

often personal issues, issues with childcare, and many frustrated and

anxiety-ridden employees."

Lost wages and jobs will sharply hit North Carolina residents, where

hundreds of small businesses were completely destroyed by Hurricane

Floyd, and agricultural losses were monumental.

Response leaders maintain that the effects of lost jobs and missed

paychecks are just beginning to show, and the hardship will be even

worse for undocumented citizens and migrantfarm workers.

"I hope this is a wake-up call to churches that this issue needs to

be addressed," said Morris. He is a member of the Southeast Florida

Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which has been voicing the

faith-based community's concern about post-disaster conditions for

workers.

"A lot of business people aren't bad people. They're just running on

a margin and can't afford to adopt flexible policies in the wake of

disaster, which is understandable. But that doesn't make it right."

Posted Oct. 18, 1999


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