California Wineries Seek to Douse Impact of Fire on Employees

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By Joyce E. Cutler and Genevieve Douglas

The wine industry, still calculating the full extent of the devastation wrought by deadly wildfires in Northern California, is pressing on to protect workers and grapes alike.

More than 7,700 structures, including 601 commercial properties, were destroyed and 245,000 charred in fires that began Oct. 8. The death toll thus far is 42 in blazes that have caused damage the state Department of Insurance preliminarily estimated at $1.045 billion. Overall numbers on the impact on the wine industry aren’t yet available, although the Napa Valley Vintners trade association said 47 of its 330 member wineries reported direct damage and just a handful experienced significant property loss as of Oct. 18.

“The biggest issue is human displacement and helping employees who have lost their homes and resources,” Gladys Horiuchi, Wine Institute media relations director, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 17.

Constellation Brands Inc., which owns the Franciscan Estate, Mark West, Mount Veeder, Robert Mondavi, Simi, and Clos du Bois brands, has “taken a number of extra precautions during this tragic event to keep employees safe,” spokesman Mike McGrew told Bloomberg Law.

These include encouraging employees to “put their personal safety and families first” before returning to work, “minimizing outdoor exposure and limiting work to only critical activities,” and “providing proper personal protection equipment advice and monitoring to Constellation Brands employees, temporary employees and contract service providers,” he said. The company is also allowing workers to take “longer and more frequent breaks, providing food and water at all times, and constantly monitoring conditions, exposures and wildfire risks,” McGrew said in an Oct. 19 email.

This is all in addition to the injury and illness prevention programs the company already has at all of its locations, McGrew said.

Napa Valley, where CalFire reports 108,180 acres were burned and fires are now largely contained, accounts for just 4 percent of all the wine made in California. Even if there are some losses for the 2017 vintage, there will be virtually no impact on the greater volume of the California wine industry, Napa Valley Vintners said. California’s wine industry accounts for 85 percent of the total U.S. wine production, according to the Wine Institute, a coalition of wineries and affiliated businesses. That’s 608.27 million gallons out of 806.44 million gallons sold in 2016.

Signorello Estate’s winery in Napa was largely destroyed Oct. 9. “We are grateful that all 25 of our employees are safe, and our vineyards and barrel room were spared from the fire. We can, and we will, rebuild the winery,” owner Ray Signorello Jr. said in a posting on the winery’s website.

Paradise Ridge Winery was destroyed in one of the fires, which “has devastated our corner of Sonoma County,” the winery said on its website.

Safety First

In the wake of a disaster, businesses have to address many key parts of operations, from compliance to IT, finance, and human resources to ensure business operations can resume, Nina Small, regional chair of the North Bay for the Northern California Human Resources Association, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 20. To do this effectively, there has to be a plan in place before disaster strikes, she said.

Worker health and safety is at the top of wineries’ priorities as many vintners wait for access to their properties. “Treasury Wine Estates is continuing to focus on ensuring that all of our employees are safe and well, with the continued changing conditions in the region,” Brent Dodd, spokesman for the group that owns Berringer, Beaulieu Vineyard, and Stag’s Leap among other wineries, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 19.

The ash from the burning of various materials is usually hazardous because of the nature of the burned debris, from plastics, cleaners, chemicals, and other materials found in structures, Sean Smith, California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) debris removal coordinator, told Bloomberg Law. “This is not ash that is in your campfire. This is building materials that burned until there’s nothing left. All that’s left behind is chemicals and ash,” Smith said Oct. 19.

Inhaling the chemical- and metal-laden particles can cause potentially deadly respiratory issues, and skin can be irritated by wet residue, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, the fire retardant airdropped to stop the flames contains two types of fertilizer and rainfall can create a toxic stew that state, federal, and local governments are trying to assess before large-scale debris cleanup can begin. The state and counties are providing respirator masks that filter out fine particulate matter, and local health emergencies were declared along with state and federal disaster declarations.

Assessing Employee Needs

Employees will have many other needs outside of the health and safety realm as well, and human resources departments will be key in seeking to meet them. For employees, “finding the sense of normalcy is really the key,” and that will largely depend on how badly the facility, employees, and technology have been affected, Chandra Seymour, senior vice president of the strategic risk consulting practice of Marsh Risk Consulting, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 19.

Seymour cautioned that companies shouldn’t feel they must provide every service, but HR should be the entity that ensures the organization’s efforts are as effective as possible, such as connecting employees with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, allowing displaced employees to telework, and keeping everyone up to date on business operations. “HR plays a huge role in helping define what we want to do as an organization to meet those needs,” Seymour said.

Businesses shouldn’t lose sight of the human trauma that occurs in a natural disaster, Small said. “There’s a lot of fear in the wake of a disaster, and part of the company’s job is to support employees through this.” Company employee assistance programs can help with the recovery, and HR should emphasize their availability, Small said.

Communication Plan

Indeed, communication “really facilitates a faster recovery,” Douglas Farrow, a partner in KPMG’s forensic practice in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 20. There needs to be a team approach from an employer from finance, IT, and senior leadership working together with insurance carriers and other partners to ensure the organization’s business continuity.

In the wake of a disaster, employers may also find themselves being the source of communications about food, water, accessibility, and other basic living needs for their workers, Small said. During the wildfires, social media has played a “huge” role in getting this information to workers in a timely manner, as she and co-workers were able to share updates on almost an “hourly basis” about the state of the fires, Small said.

“We were able to get information on practically an hourly basis, and companies should capitalize on this ability to communicate widely with employees in times of disaster,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at JCutler@bna.com; Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at THarris@bna.com

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