Following a series of natural disasters, US tech company Fog Creek is planning for increasingly extreme weather by offering employees paid climate leave. Here’s why Australian companies need to look into similar policies.
Developing strategies to deal with the increasingly dire impacts of of climate change have been a topic of international discussion as world leaders met in Bonn last week to discuss the impact of rising temperatures.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the Dominican Republic hard; there was the deadly earthquake in Mexico, monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, a catastrophic mudslide in Colombia, as well as Hurricane Irma that affected the US and Caribbean.
Watching from the outside, you don’t immediately think about the professional consequences of enduring a major weather event. But from the inside, the horror of these disasters gives way to far more practical concerns, with reports of people in the affected areas wondering if there would be professional consequences for evacuating.
For many, these fears were well founded. In August, prior to Hurricane Irma, a Florida Pizza Hut manager told employees that failure to show up for work due to evacuation would only be a valid excuse 24 hours before the storm. This was in conflict with directives from government officials encouraging residents to leave the area long before then. The notice was widely circulated on Twitter, along with pointed caption, “Showing how little they care about their employees”. The company later issued a statement saying: “We absolutely do not have a policy that dictates when team members can leave or return from a disaster.”
But therein lies the problem. Many companies don’t have policies in writing that account for increasingly common extreme weather conditions.
It was a problem that did not go unnoticed by Anil Dash, CEO of US tech company, Fog Creek who introduced it in response to recent storms that affected company employees in 2017.
“Our past policy of “trust us, we’ll take care of you” needs to be formalised for the same reasons that any other HR policy gets formalised: having it in writing protects workers,” he said in a lengthy blog post outlining the policy.
The policy, which is one of the first of its kind, entitles workers to 5 days of climate leave each calendar year, regardless of whether a state of emergency has been called by local officials.
Australia and climate change
Closer to home, Deloitte has recently published a report predicting that weather in Australia is set to become increasingly extreme. They suggest that the costs of natural disasters in Australia will “double by 2051, averaging $39 billion per year.” And along with floods, bushfires and cyclones experts have been suggesting for some time that Australians need to make systemic changes to adapt to dangerously hot conditions, that are predicted to increase in both regularity and intensity.
Policies similar to Fog Creek’s climate leave policy might go some way to protecting workers – but dealing with extreme heat is slightly more complex. Evacuation isn’t an option, and unlike cyclones or bushfires, rising temperatures are set to become a constant presence.
Academics from ANU suggest that traditional cooling methods are inadequate in dealing with the anticipated extreme heat. “Air-conditioning and acclimatisation are not the answer. Acclimatisation to heat has an upper limit, beyond which humans need to rest or risk overheating and potential death. And air-conditioning, if not powered by renewable electricity, increases greenhouse gas emissions, feeding into further climate changes.”
In addition to public health reform, they argue that workplaces need to come up with initiatives to ensure the health of their employees.
One such initiative, they suggest, is an increased focus on flexible work, allowing employees to travel and complete intense tasks during the coolest parts of the day, or limit their exposure to the elements altogether.
“Individuals and workplaces also need to prepare for heatwaves,” they said, “In a heat-smart nation, we’ll need to reschedule tasks to avoid or limit exposure, including rest periods, and to ensure adequate hydration with cool fluids.”