State Farm Prepares Employees for Duty in the Disaster Zone

State Farm is used to dealing with disasters--but not on the scale of Katrina.

October 10, 2005
As most companies were scrambling to get workers out of the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina, State Farm Insurance was dispatching thousands of employees into the region. For the firm, it’s standard practice to send its catastrophe response team to a scene of a disaster to assess damages.

    But never before had the company seen anything of this scale--an emergency that required the participation of its entire 3,000-person response team. Annette Jackson, State Farm’s human resources manager, not only had to make sure these employees were prepared, she had to arrange for housing. On top of that, she also was involved in relocating the 3,200 displaced State Farm workers who had lived in New Orleans and surrounding areas and were now homeless, or whose offices had been severely damaged.

    Within days of the hurricane, State Farm had set up training facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, and Houston and was providing orientation to 100 to 200 employees a day in each facility. The company always requires employees to go through orientation before entering a disaster-affected area to update them on insurance rules and other regional specifics. But in the wake of Katrina, Jackson added a course on what a client’s emotional state might be like to better prepare employees to handle the assignment emotionally.

    "We always have counselors available, but this was the first time we brought them in proactively," she says.

    Staying on top of safety issues was particularly challenging in the days following Katrina. "We make sure that all of the employees get tetanus shots, and we have teams researching what kind of supplies they need to make sure they are safe when they get to the affected areas," she says.

    To provide for places to stay, Jackson and her team instituted a housing program. Employees who invited colleagues into their homes could receive $100 a day. In some instances, the company chartered a plane to fly employees from Houston to the disaster areas.

    With 355,000 claims so far from Katrina victims and another 39,600 from Hurricane Rita, State Farm has started putting newer agents through the orientation. To make sure that they are prepared, the firm has lengthened the training from a day to a day and a half. The company also has streamlined the orientation so that all of the classes are now held in Dallas--a major airport hub that trainers can easily access.

    "Our focus right now is understanding how these employees’ needs are different than their peers’ and making sure that we know how to support them," Jackson says. "A lot of our response to this disaster is about being creative."

Workforce Management, October 10, 2005, p. 28 -- Subscribe Now!