In the first week of November 2022, Hurricane Lisa made landfall in Belize, becoming the fifth hurricane to hit the country in November since hurricane record-keeping began. According to the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), Hurricane Lisa caused 200 million BZD (equivalent to over 99 million USD) in damages based on prior incidents, primarily to Belize City and the surrounding communities. So far the estimated damage has included the complete destruction of 500 homes and the partial destruction of over 5000 homes. As climate change influences the frequency and intensity of storms, the country is in the process of adapting to address harm and destruction of property.
One manner where Belize has tackled this is through the use of the state of emergency declaration called by the Prime Minister for the Belize and Stann Creek districts in advance of Lisa’s arrival on November 2. With this declaration, people were required to remain indoors from 3 pm through the following day. However, in some cases, the murkiness of work policies and productivity demands put people in tenuous positions where they had to choose between securing their homes and family or ensuring they receive their full compensation. This was a predicament faced by many call center workers in the lead-up to the storm’s arrival, with several memes circulating online demonstrating call center workers’ frustration with those expectations.
Once sold to Belizeans as a catalyst of a new ‘knowledge economy’ when the first call center company was established in 2006, call centers have since built a word-of-mouth reputation throughout the country for unprofessional conduct and being what in Kriol people would call ‘haad a pay.’
Increased quantity and intensity of hurricanes hitting Belize
Despite being a country with a documented susceptibility to storms, several call center employees from different companies said that their company lacked an emergency plan when Lisa began its approach. One Belize City call center employee (most employees chose to remain anonymous for this article, either fearing retaliation or because they were concerned for their privacy) stated that even though service agents began asking about the company’s hurricane emergency plan from the Friday before the hurricane hit, the company failed to come up with a response as late as Tuesday.
Agents asked on Monday, October 31 whether they could be paid that day as opposed to November 1 to avoid any delays with the transaction due to the storm, but those requests were not met. Instead, several employees found themselves late Tuesday night receiving cash payments delivered to their homes by management staff. Others living further from the city didn’t receive bank transfers until after the storm. Agents from two call centers were also upset about the initial expectation to work at the office, citing that the company had done nothing to secure the building.
Climate anxiety on the rise
The work circumstances faced by call center workers in the lead-up to the storm are all examples of climate anxiety.
Defined by Stanford researcher Dr. Britt Wray who discusses the subject in her 2022 book Generation Dread, climate anxiety is…
“an assortment of feelings that a person can experience when they wake up to the full extent of the climate and wider ecological crisis.”
While work in Belize has begun to assist in infrastructural adaptation to climate change, the country still lacks the capacity to help Belizeans cope with the negative feelings brought about by increased natural disasters in the region influenced by warming temperatures. Those feelings, inflamed with the hurricane’s imminent landfall, were heightened by the workplace fumbling to implement an empathetic emergency plan.
So even as negotiators met in COP27 and were able to secure the establishment of a fund for loss and damage, Caribbean people also need to look into climate anxiety, as they have been and will continue to face more intense and frequent hurricanes.
Placing employees at the fore
With these various complaints about call centers’ handling of the hurricane, the industry seemed to once again confirm the validity of its reputation. However, call centers and other workplaces have the opportunity to act otherwise and help mitigate the stress employees face by providing a clear plan for employees to execute that is mindful of the need for time to secure their homes, as well as the financial strain placed on employees as a result of a hurricane. CustomerHD, founded in May 2021, is an example of one such call center that managed the storm with a different approach.
The company’s founders, Americans Jonathan Keane and Josef Schmidt, were coincidentally visiting the Belizean branch just prior to the storm’s projected landfall. They decided to remain in Belize with their employees and learn about the hurricane’s impacts. Noting the difficult circumstance their employees faced in the aftermath of the storm, Customer HD provided paid time off Wednesday and Thursday while those who were able to work during the storm and in its immediate aftermath were paid double their usual hourly rate, a policy corroborated by several CustomerHD agents. Additionally, all employees received a $100 cash bonus and the option to receive a pantry of requested items for those that registered.
‘It was an easy decision,’ said Director of Client Services, Cherilyn Rodriguez when asked how CustomerHD’s management team came up with this response.
“We want to provide Belizeans more than just an hourly wage. We want to provide them with a way to a successful career. We want to help Belize,” said Rodriguez.
When asked how they negotiated the unavailability of agents during the storm, she stated that clients were informed about Belize’s susceptibility to storms prior to any agreement. The result of this was that clients were understanding of agents’ needs to evacuate and potentially be unable to provide service for the duration of the storm. This contrasts with reports from other call center workers who said management claimed they could not interrupt service to their clientele in the United States, who were not aware of the storm or its potential impact.
While Belize is responsible for a minuscule portion of global greenhouse emissions and can therefore do little to curb global warming, the country, and its many businesses can proactively address the climate anxiety and fallout of Belizeans with better emergency planning.
Rodriguez believes CustomerHD’s competitors will have to similarly adapt high employee care policies if they hope to recruit high-quality personnel and attract top-tier clients. As opposed to leaving employees to flounder in the lead-up and aftermath of a natural disaster, companies can intervene and provide much-needed support. With hurricanes becoming a greater threat with each passing year, it’ll soon become apparent which companies heeded the warning of Lisa and center the concerns of their employees when disaster surely strikes again.