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Hurricane Ida is expected to keep remote workers in the New Orleans area in the dark for weeks. It's the type of natural disaster that may put remote work policies and hiring decisions to the test.
Ida, which made landfall Aug. 29, knocked out power for over a million people in Louisiana. Some also lost water, and communications and power restoration will take a long time.
Ensuring remote workers can remain online in a natural disaster is not usually part of a remote work policy. In fact, employers are more likely to subsidize an ergonomically correct chair than pay for a remote worker's backup power system, according to experts.
That may be because the technology alternatives aren't good. Home generators and satellite internet are expensive, and there's no guarantee home installations will work after a significant natural disaster.
"Generators are not useful in 10 feet of water, just like a satellite [dish] isn't [when it's] laying on the ground after a storm," said Tom Gorup, vice president of security and support operations at Alert Logic Inc., a cybersecurity firm based in Houston. Moreover, these systems aren't necessarily options for people living in apartments, he said.
Similar to New Orleans, Houston also faces severe storm risks. That's why Alert Logic has plans in place to relocate workers needed for immediate business continuity to hotels out of the path of the storms like Ida, according to Gorup. But if repairs are slow, the company may increase the number of employees to be moved temporarily. It will be a volunteer system, he said. The firm employs 700.
Tom GorupVice president of security and support operations, Alert Logic Inc.
But natural disaster planning for remote workers may get more attention with the rise of severe weather.
"Extreme weather events have been the principal contributors to an increase in the frequency and duration of power outages in the United States," the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated in a report to lawmakers last March.
2020 a record for natural disasters
Last year, the U.S. last year was hit by 22 disasters that did $1 billion or more in damage, including hurricanes, droughts and severe storms -- the most on record since 1980, according to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.
Employers may pay for computers and even the cost of internet under their remote work policy, "and that's probably as far as they go in most cases," said Michael Puldy, CEO and founder of business continuity consultancy, Puldy Resiliency Partners LLC in Los Angeles. "You have to expect a certain level of your employees are just not going to be available in a large critical disaster," he said.
The option employers are most likely to use to ensure continuity is to move their most essential workers and families to an area with power, he said.
Employers have long assumed that their remote workers will have electricity and an internet connection, said Amy DeMartine, vice president and research director at Forrester Research. "That assumption cannot be made anymore," she said.
Some employer remote work policies will pay for cell phones and sometimes internet, but "after that, not much," DeMartine said. She said they might also have a yearly stipend for things like chairs and monitors.
DeMartine said employers could move essential workers to hotels during storms but added that severe weather could affect more than employees currently on a company's roster. The risk of natural disasters may also influence hiring decisions, she said.
Unless there is a good reason to hire someone in New Orleans, "you might hire somebody in Colorado and shift that job away from a high-risk area," DeMartine said. That's a hiring decision that may take on more importance in time, she said.
Despite the risk that remote workers may be knocked offline by a natural disaster, a distributed workforce has its advantages, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a telecommuting research and consulting firm in San Diego.
"Telework has been central to most government and many private sector continuity of operations plans for decades," Lister said.
As far as rejecting a candidate who lives in a high-risk area, "given the talent shortage, I would be surprised to see that happen," she said.
Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.