Weathering an Employer’s Duties During the Storm

By: Rachel D. Gebaide, Morey Raiskin and Abood Shebib

Hurricane season is only half over, with Hurricane Ida leaving a trail of damage across Louisiana and beyond, and Hurricane Larry swirling in the Atlantic Ocean, although the storm is not expected to threaten the U.S.  Prudent employers may wish to institute (or update) emergency preparedness plans to ensure employee safety, continuity of operations, and records and asset preservation. However, it is also important for employers to consider potential HR-related legal issues and liability that could arise before, during and after a major storm.

Before the Storm. A common issue employers face when a hurricane is approaching is whether it can require employees to report to work despite the hurricane, and whether the employer may take adverse action against an employee who fails to report to work because of the hurricane. An employer likely can require an employee to report to work, even where an evacuation order for the area has been issued. In Gillyard v. Delta Health Group, Inc., 757 So. 2d 601 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000), the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Volusia counties, among others, dismissed an employee’s complaint against her former employer who terminated her employment when she failed to report to work following the issuance of mandatory evacuation orders because of severe fires. Although an employer may be within its rights to terminate an employee who fails to report to work in these circumstances, employers should prioritize the safety of employees and consider the risk of liability where an employee is injured as a result of working in unsafe conditions.

During the Storm. Where employees are excused from work as a result of a hurricane, an employer does not have to pay hourly employees who are “non-exempt” from the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act for the hours missed, because it is non-working time. Similarly, if the same hourly employee decides not to come to work because of the storm, the employer need not pay for non-working time. On the other hand, an employer is required to continue to pay exempt employees for their time away from work during the hurricane if the workplace is closed; provided the closure is less than a full workweek. However, the employer may require exempt employees to use available paid leave benefits.

When an employee is called up by the National Guard or Reserves to participate in the storm response, either before, during or after the storm, an employer must comply with the requirements of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”), which prohibits discharging, denying initial employment, denying promotion, or denying any benefit of employment because of a person’s membership, performance of service, or obligation to perform service in uniformed service.  Employees on USERRA leave may, at their option, use available paid leave benefits to be paid for their time away from work.

After the Storm. Where an employee cannot report to work due to transportation difficulties experienced as a result of the storm, the absence is considered an absence for personal reasons under the U.S. Department of Labor’s regulations. An employer does not have to pay a non-exempt employee for any work time missed as the result of transportation difficulties resulting from weather. An employer may make a deduction from an exempt employee’s salary for a full day absence for this reason or an employer may require the employee to use paid leave benefits for the full day absence for this reason. However, an employer cannot make a deduction from the exempt employee’s salary for any absence less than a full day.

If an employer allows remote work in the wake of the storm, non-exempt employees must still be compensated for all time worked remotely, and the employer should bear in mind it may have to rely on employees’ self-reporting their work hours. Exempt employees working remotely must still be paid their regular salary although an employer can require the employee to use paid leave benefits for any partial workdays.

Employers also have some flexibility if a storm delays the processing and delivery of wage payments to employees as Florida has no law governing the frequency of wage payments. However, if an employer has employees outside of Florida, the employer should take note of the laws of those other jurisdictions concerning frequency of wage payments to employees.

Employees affected by a hurricane may seek protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for any serious health condition caused by the hurricane or where the employee must care for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition. Even if the employee is not covered by federal, state, or local laws (such as Dade County’s family and medical leave ordinance, Ordinance Sections 11A-29 et seq.) that allow time off for injury or illness, employers should assess whether an employee may be eligible for leave under any of the employer’s policies or under a collective bargaining agreement. Ultimately, if the employer changes how it enforces its leave policies due to a hurricane, the employer should make sure any changes to enforcement are applied consistently to all employees and that the employer’s actions are always supported by legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

If a business is unable to reopen for an extended period of time in the aftermath of a storm, the effect on employee benefits such as paid leave and health insurance is rather complex, and must be decided on a factual basis pursuant to ERISA, the FMLA, COBRA, and other laws. Furthermore, the federal WARN Act imposes 60-day advance notice requirements on employers with 100 or more employees for certain plant closings and mass layoffs. Where a plant closing or mass layoff is the result of a natural disaster, the employer is required to give as much notice as is practicable.  Employers outside of Florida may have to comply with other states’ “mini-WARN” laws.

The considerations set forth above are only examples of a few of the many legal issues that could arise and result in potential legal liability on the part of an employer in the face of a hurricane. Additional issues may arise under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and unemployment laws, to name a few, employers should consult with their employment law counsel to ensure compliance with best practices and to limit legal exposure.

The Lowndes firm hopes everyone stays safe this hurricane season, and we stand ready to help our clients weather hurricane season and beyond.