The wildfires that ravaged San Diego County proved to be an opportunity and a test for employers competing to retain highly coveted technology workers.
Within hours, as flames engulfed thousands of homes and forced the evacuation of a half-million residents, the speed at which the fire spread gave companies little time to communicate, giving added weight to decisions made on the fly.
Being Prepared When Disaster Strikes
Though business infrastructure was for the most part safe, the questions centered on the lives of employees: Should they heed public officials and stay off the roads? Would they be compensated for time off? What would happen if they lost a house in the fire? With schools closed, could they bring their children to work?
Stephanie Boos, head of human resources at Biomatrica, a small San Diego biotech company, turned to an online industry bulletin board to see what her peers were doing.
"We were in a reaction mode, not so much a planning mode," she says. Soon, she realized flexibility would be the key to bringing people back to work and keeping morale high.
"Bring in your kids, bring in your in-laws, bring in your dogs," she says. "We just need people to work here."
Larry Hofer, vice president of people services at Cox Communications in San Diego, got a call at 6 a.m. October 22. Authorities gave him 30 minutes to evacuate his home in Rancho Bernardo, where some 300 homes burned. He was one of 300 Cox employees to be evacuated countywide.
"This was very personal for me," Hofer says. "It helped me better understand and focus on things that are important."
Atlanta-based Cox immediately granted paid time off to employees who needed it and offered financial assistance to those staying in hotels. He says this policy made it easier for people to come back to work. Within a couple days, Hofer says, 80 percent of his 2,200 employees were back on the job.
By midweek, most workers who were not evacuated—along with many of their children—were back at the workplace. Kevin Carroll, executive director of AEA San Diego Council, a trade group representing the technology sector, brought his 5-year-old child to work. High-tech companies, he says, were already talking about offering direct assistance to workers whose houses were destroyed.
Carroll, who put unemployment in the sector at around 2 percent, said companies want to do everything they can to retain technology workers hard hit by the fires.
"Because there is a shortage of tech workers in this region and retention is key, they don't want to lose these workers they've worked so hard to get," he says. "Just in terms of retention and morale, they are going to put packages in place."
Large employers resorted to policies already in place for disaster relief. Lockheed Martin, which employs 5,700 people in areas where the fires burned across Southern California, said its employee disaster relief fund would help active full-time employees offset expenses.
"When it comes to a disaster, this company rallies," spokesman Jeff Adams says.
Biomatrica, which has 15 employees, took a more ad-hoc attitude.
"Since we are a startup, everybody takes care of each other," Boos says. "If someone lost their house, we would all come together to help them. We're a really small company, so we can't afford to lose anyone."
Hofer says Cox employees would be able to draw from a disaster relief fund. Hofer stressed, however, that it was the little things—setting up internal bulletin boards for people to share resources, providing lunch for those who made it to the office, handing out air purifiers—that create a feeling of good will.
"Whether there is a disaster or not, there is always a war for high-tech talent," Hofer says. "We've been able to keep talent for the most part because of what we do for our people. This week's firestorm showed us walking the walk and it reinforces why Cox is a great place to work."
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