Employers Offer Sandy-Affected Workers Hot Showers, Housing, Cash

Damaged roads and disrupted public transit prevented many New York City-area commuters from getting to work in the week following Hurricane Sandy. And because of mass power outages, tens of thousands of offices were shut down.

But that didn't mean employees were all stiffed their paychecks. In fact, many employers in the Tri-State area did whatever they could to ensure that their workers were cared for, as the region reeled from the fiercest storm in its history, which left tens of thousands homeless.

While companies (including AOL) have made grand, charitable gestures to the hurricane relief effort, sometimes even doubling employee contributions to the Red Cross or Salvation Army, less well-known are the kindnesses that they've shown their employees who were severely affected by the storm.

Some were basic, like paying employees for the time they couldn't work, while other companies offered workers thousands of dollars in temporary housing subsidies. One New York CEO, Jason Goldberg of Fab.com, an online design store, even opened his own home to workers who lacked power at theirs. (Pictured above, a few Fab.com workers getting work done in a co-worker's apartment.)

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There were limits to employer generosity, however. Several companies in the area granted their workers a few days of paid time off, but then counted any further time away as vacation, reports The Wall Street Journal. The iconic entertainment company, Madison Square Garden Co., set the cap at three days. A powerful nor'easter expected to strike the Sandy-battered region Wednesday promises to test employer patience even more, with the storm's rain and winds likely to stall recovery for homes and businesses, and more New York and New Jersey residents told to evacuate.

But even companies that employ hourly workers, and aren't required to pay them if they don't work, by and large gave them a paycheck anyway in the week following Sandy. According to Joe Fontana, the political and communications director for Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union, the New York pharmacy chain Duane Reade and the supermarket chains Stop & Shop and A&P (which owns The Food Emporium, Food Basics and Waldbaum's) either paid all their employees or redirected workers to open stores so that they could still clock their hours. Even non-union employers such as Starbucks and Walmart paid their workers for the forced time off.

White collar workplaces have been extraordinarily generous, allowing employees throughout their organization and their families to come to the office for hot meals and showers, and giving out extra paid time off, cash gifts, and temporary housing.

  • American Express workers in the Tri-State area who were severely impacted received 10 additional paid days off, and up to $500 to pay for clothing, food, shelter and a rental car, a spokeswoman said. AmEx also provided up to $2,500 for temporary living arrangements for storm victims who were displaced, and up to $5,000 if they lost their homes.
  • The Lakewood, N.J., facility of pharmaceutical company DPT Labs gave all its employees an unspecified amount of paid time off to deal with their issues at home, although it "was a significant cost to the company," president and general manager Eugene Ciolfi said via email.

Workers At All Levels Helped

One employee at Interbrand, the Manhattan-based global branding company, lost his home in Ocean Township, Long Island. The company allowed him to take all the paid time off that he needs. "This is someone who works in the mailroom, not an executive," says spokesman Russel Clark. "It doesn't matter who you are and what you do."

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CentraState Healthcare System in Freehold Township, N.J., offered free, fully-furnished apartments to 12 of its employees who were "devastated" by the storm, said spokeswoman Abbie Luterick. JetBlue Airways Corp., which has 5,000 employees in New York, also is working on providing hotel rooms -- and anything else employees need -- to those who lost their homes.

Finding A Place To Work

With swaths of offices and homes in the dark, some employees who had power opened their dwellings to co-workers who didn't. The online design store Fab.com's CEO Jason Goldberg sent an email to staffers the morning after the storm, asking if any folks with power could offer their homes. Out of the 150 or so with power, 114 immediately said yes. Goldberg himself hosted 15 employees at his Hell's Kitchen apartment, and then gave all employees a $50 bonus for each day the office was closed -- to cover costs and as a thank-you for finding a way to work.

Some companies even offered to share their office space, and employees of the New York-based website, Buzzfeed, shacked up with publishing company Hearst for a period.

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With schools closed across New York and New Jersey, many companies also opened up their offices to gaggles of employee offspring. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield New Jersey, the largest health insurance provider in the state, let children come in and amuse themselves in corners and conference rooms.

At CentraState, human resources staff volunteered to play babysitter. "My 3-year-old was with an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old," says Luterick. "As a parent, it was kind of cool."

Employee Giving

In addition to company assistance funds, numerous employers gave their staff a way to donate money to their colleagues in need. In times of crisis, Walmart invites its 2.1 million associates around the world to pitch in to its employee-giving program.

Any JetBlue "crew member," as the company refers to all of its employees, can donate to its crisis fund, and the company will match all gifts, dollar for dollar. CentraState allowed employees to donate their paid vacation days into a relief fund as cash.

Some stores didn't necessarily follow through on their good-will policies, though. Walmart representative Dianna Gee said it closed down 300 East Coast stores last Monday so that its associates could get safely home before Hurricane Sandy struck. But Christine Bennett, a customer service representative at a Walmart in Capital Plaza, Md., claims that her store stayed open until midnight on Monday, through the height of the storm, even though all the nearby stores went dead long before.

"The managers don't care about their associates," she said. "They just care about Walmart and Walmart's money."

Gee says Bennett's store didn't close, because it wasn't in a mandatory evacuation zone, and didn't suffer a power outage. Walmart has a responsibility to stay open when it can, she added, because it stocks so many emergency supplies, but associates who want to get home for safety reasons always can.

500 Walmart associates also staffed emergency hotlines at the store's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., according to Gee, to make sure that all 250,000 employees in the hurricane zone were accounted for. Associates at stores that did close were paid for their scheduled hours, whether they could work or not. Several associates sustained property damage, and one lost her son. Walmart is "making sure they're being supported in every way possible," Gee said, although she wouldn't give specifics.

By and large, supporting employees was the priority in Sandy's wake. Adding together all the showers and subsidized meals, cash gifts and counseling, CentraState spokeswoman Abbie Luterick finds it hard to count how many employees have been helped.

"I think we were able to touch every employee in some way," she said.

Additional reporting by Dan Fastenberg and David Schepp.

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