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Business community gets advice on coping with storm, outages

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If last Friday's storm resulted in your business being closed and you've lost revenue, you need to find your insurance policy and read it.

If an employee coping with the aftermath of the storm requests a day off to deal with issues at home, it's probably better to grant them a vacation day rather than trying to interpret the finer points of federal employment law.

And how you treat or mistreat customers and employees now will likely be remembered for months -- even years -- to come.

These are just a few of the points made by experts Tuesday at a Charleston Area Alliance briefing on storm-related business issues.

Frank Baer III of Commercial Insurance Services delivered what may have been the most surprising news at the briefing. He said that if your business is closed because there's no power and you have business-interruption insurance, the policy wouldn't pay unless there's been a physical loss to the building.

"That's shocking to people in this room," he said.

On a similar note, "if you have homeowner's insurance and a tree falls in your yard but doesn't hit anything, you're not covered for the clean-up. But if a big tree falls and cuts your house in two, the cost of the removal of the tree and to fix the house is covered, less the deductible," he said.

Another current issue is spoiled food.

Baer said he hasn't had power at his house for four days. He has a $500 limit in his homeowner's policy -- after a $5,000 deductible. "So I don't really have any coverage," he told the 33 people at the briefing.

Every claim is different so it's impossible to address insurance questions with generalizations, Baer said.

When disaster strikes, "Act as if you don't have insurance," Baer advised. "Do reasonable things: Call the repair person. Take pictures. Keep receipts. It could take days for an adjuster to get out to you."

Mychal Schultz of the law firm Dinsmore and Shohl urged businesses to dig out their insurance policies, read them, and ask experts for help interpreting the language.

"Use an event like this as a wake-up call to make sure your policy covers the sort of risks your business may have," he said.

Eric Kinder, a labor law specialist with the firm Spilman Thomas and Battle, said, "One main takeaway all employers should be aware of is this is not the moment to be a stickler on the fine details about leave, absenteeism and tardiness.

"If you have employees unable to get to work or who are addressing a crisis at home, give them the time off," he urged. "Don't worry if it technically fits as leave under federal law. Give the time off. People remember employers who treat them well and an employer who doesn't. This is a small community and word gets out.

"Under the law, hourly employees who do not come to work, you do not have an obligation to pay them," Kinder said. "But don't be a stickler about this. This is an opportunity for you to say, 'If you need a couple of days off with pay, we'll give you those vacation days.'

"If you're a business with employees working overtime, obviously keeping track of your employees' hours is vitally important," he said.

"You have an obligation to make sure your employees are working safely and getting enough rest," he said. "I know that there are employees who want to go out and help their neighbors. They want to work. But you don't want to be dealing with a fatality because someone worked too hard and pushed themselves too far."

Kinder said that even if you own a business that has been forced to close, "it is your obligation to make payroll under your normal schedule. It's very important. Even if your computers are down, there is a way to make estimations by hand calculation. You've got people who need that money. So try to get money in the hands of your employees on your regular schedule. The state takes that obligation very seriously."

Matthew Sutton, vice president of the Charleston-based public relations firm Charles Ryan Associates, said a crisis you were not responsible for can become your crisis.

"There are people in New Orleans who still remember businesses that were friendly and helpful during Katrina and are still shopping or not shopping at stores because of the way they were treated," he said. "People will remember if you were or were not there for them.

"Simply tell the truth," Sutton said. "Be honest. Make sure your employees know what's going on as well. They're your advocates."

Even though some people can't get on the Internet and aren't following discussions on Facebook or Twitter now, "the stuff out there lives on forever," he said. "One or two bad things said about you will hurt your reputation for years to come. Word of mouth is going to last in this situation.

"Take this time to reflect and put together a crisis communication plan," he advised. "You may not have created this crisis but you have to deal with it. You don't have to have a 500-page plan. Get a document that has employee names, phone numbers and email addresses all in one binder. Lay out what you'll do if your business loses power. Let the employees look at it.

"Now is the best time to do it because you've just lived through your experience."

Also at the briefing, Tania Hotmer, manager of external affairs at Appalachian Power, explained how the utility's service restoration process works. She said customers might not see power company employees because a lot of the work currently underway is on big transmission lines that typically are not near houses.

Hotmer said people also sometimes have difficulty understanding why one side of the street has power but the other side doesn't. She said examples of this might be seen in St. Albans, where a big substation feeds five circuits. "Three of the five circuits aren't getting transmission in at all," she said. "Three are cold, two are hot."

Appalachian Power is doing all it can to keep the public updated through the traditional media as well as social media, she said.

Charleston City Manager David Molgaard said many people wonder why their street is closed and trees are still down. "It's because there are power lines intermingled with the trees," he said.

Even though the power may be off, "generators that people have at their homes can back feed into those lines creating dangerous situations," he said. "We have not had any fatalities in Charleston and we want to keep it that way."

Molgaard said regularly scheduled garbage pickup will continue this week, even today, the July 4 holiday. "Your regular routes will continue as scheduled," he said.

The city will show some leniency toward businesses that may be a little late renewing their business license or paying a tax if they've been impacted by the storm, he said. "Call the City Collector's Office or the department head or the person at the city you deal with and let them know you are down and need a little time," he said.

The city will try to keep its website updated, Molgaard added.

Also at the briefing:

* Representatives of the offices of U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said the state's Congressional delegation is working together and stand ready to assist in all appropriate ways.

* Tim Gibson of the financial services firm Merrill Lynch urged businesses to take advantage of the expertise of their bankers, brokers and advisers. "They are paid professionals for a reason," he said.

* John Calvert of Advanced Technical Solutions said pre-planning is a must to ensure your business has the ability to recover from a disaster. He provided a sheet with tips for helping businesses survive a disaster.

* Kristina Oliver, state director of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, urged businesses with questions to call the "Business Ask Me! Line" at 1-888-982-7232 or to send an email to

Oliver handed out a packet that included a disaster recovery guide. Contact writer George Hohmann at or 304-348-4836.


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