Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How Should I Manage My Employees During a Natural Disaster?

The 2017 hurricane season has been particularly brutal, with two massive hurricanes devastating much of Texas and Florida. While we are fortunate that hurricanes are not a worry in Illinois, tornadoes, floods, and blizzards are all very much a part of life here. While the focus during these events is generally on rescue and recovery, one thing that may be on employers’ minds is what their responsibilities to their employees are during these natural disasters. 
Here are the answers to a few common questions that employers may have:

How Do I Pay Employees During a Natural Disaster?
Employers are only required to pay hourly employees for any hours worked during a natural disaster. So if an employer tells everyone to go home right before a major storm, hourly employees do not need to be paid for the time the workplace is closed, even if they were scheduled to work during this time and are willing to do so. The same is true if an hourly employee shows up to the office only to discover that it has been closed due to the natural disaster.

Salaried employees, in order to remain exempt from overtime pay, must continue to be paid a salary in any week in which they perform work. However, if the workplace is closed for an entire week during a disaster, then the salaried employee does not have to be paid. Additionally, an employer can require a salaried employee to use vacation days for any time missed due to the workplace being closed during a disaster.

Also, employers may receive offers from their employees to volunteer to help the employer recover from disasters. Employers should exercise caution with these requests, because this volunteer work could easily be construed as time for which the employer is required to compensate the employee, especially if the employee is performing work similar to his or her job duties.

Employers should remember that collective bargaining agreements, employee handbooks, or employment contracts may alter these rules. Therefore, employers should familiarize themselves with any employment agreements they have made with their employees that might deviate from what the law requires.

Do I Have a Special Duty to Keep My Employees Safe During an Emergency?
OSHA requires employers to keep their workplaces safe for their employees, including during natural disasters. Employees who believe that they have been put in imminent danger by being required to come to work during a natural disaster can file a complaint with OSHA. Honestly, if there is a chance that your workplace could be negatively impacted by a natural disaster, employers should just let their employees go home and stay there until the workplace is safe again.

Do I Need to Give My Employees Time Off in the Wake of a Natural Disaster?
There is no law that says an employee must have a certain amount of time to cope with the aftereffects of a natural disaster, but both the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require an employer to provide employees with time off to do this. If an employee or his or her family member is injured in a natural disaster, then that employee is entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for his or her injuries or the injuries of a family member. Likewise, if an employee is injured during the natural disaster (either physically or psychologically), then the ADA requires employer to give the employee a “reasonable accommodation,” which means some kind of change to the workplace, that allows the employee to perform his or her job.

What Do I Need to Tell My Employees if Our Workplace Is Closed Indefinitely?
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which applies to employers with more than 75 employees, requires employers to provide employees with notice of mass layoffs and workplace closings. There is an exception for natural disasters, but an employer still needs to give employees as much notice as is practicable.

Employers should have policies in place for dealing with natural disasters so that they are not unprepared if one strikes. They may want to consider contacting an attorney to develop such a policy.