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Your Workplace Rights During Natural Disasters and Emergencies

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Natural disasters create a level of chaos that can be hard to prepare for. Nevertheless, there are many federal employment laws that are in place to guide employers and their employees regarding rights and responsibilities when disaster strikes. 

The following federal laws provide the framework for understanding your workplace rights in the event that a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, or other emergency occurs.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Salary/wage payments to be made during natural disasters are outlined by the FLSA as follows:

Exempt employees

Employers must pay exempt employees their full salary while the worksite is closed due to natural disasters or inclement weather (for less than a full working week). Employers may, however, request that employees utilize any unused leave to cover this period.

Nonexempt employees

Employers must pay nonexempt employees only for any hours actually worked, regardless of whether or not it is possible to carry out work due to a natural disaster.

Exceptions to the rule

Whereby nonexempt employees have agreed to complete an unspecified number of working hours for a specified salary amount, their employers must pay them a full week’s salary for any week in which any amount of work was carried out. 

Other FLSA guidelines include:

Waiting time

If an employee is required to wait for working conditions to be reinstated, such as waiting at work for the power to come back on, it is considered time-worked that they must be paid for.

On-call time

Whether or not any work is carried out, any employees who are required to remain on-call, either on employment premises or close-by, and are not permitted to leave, may be eligible for pay for those hours.

Not-for-profit 

Not-for-profit organization employees must be paid for any work conducted that they typically carry out as an employee, and must not be regarded as volunteers during disaster response and management.

What about layoffs?

Federal laws under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) stipulate notice requirements regarding mass layoffs and some plant closures.

Exceptions are in place for closures/layoffs that are the direct result of a natural disaster, but employers are still required to give as much notice as possible; issuing less than 60 days’ notice is only legal if the employer can prove that they meet the exception conditions.

Taking leave after a disaster

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees suffering from a serious health condition (or caring for a spouse, child or parent who is) that has been caused by a natural disaster are entitled to leave. 

Employees who are also members of an emergency services organization are protected from employment discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The act protects such American workers from being discharged, denied employment, promotion or other employment benefits due to their membership or obligation to serve with an emergency services organization.

Employee Benefit Programs

When business operations are affected by natural disasters, employers must decide whether their employee’s coverage plans will be maintained. For COBRA coverage (continuation of health coverage following loss of benefits), employers must send employees COBRA packages upon being notified of that employee’s ineligibility for an ongoing plan (typically due to ceasing work).

In the event of a natural disaster that may affect health plans, check with your employer to determine whether your cover will continue. Governmental agencies tend to issue deadline extensions in such events, but this can vary, so it is important to check.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Employees suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from a natural disaster are eligible to reasonable accommodations from their employer, so long as no undue hardship would be caused to the business. 

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

As per the OSHA, employers are responsible for protecting their employees from (unreasonable) dangers in the workplace. Natural disasters can create safety issues (such as electrical or trip hazards), and employers must consider this before expecting employees to attend and carry out duties. 

If an employee feels that they have been placed in danger, they can file a complaint with the OSHA, and request ‘whistleblower’ protections if they feel vulnerable to retaliation. 

Both the OSHA and the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) protects employees’ rights to refuse to  work in unsafe conditions. While they must have a reasonable cause for believing the conditions to be unsafe, they are still protected even if they were genuinely mistaken regarding the risks. 

Federal relief

In the event that a worker is laid-off due to a natural disaster and is not covered by their state’s unemployment compensation program, they may apply for assistance under the federally-funded Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). This assistance scheme also provides cover to self-employed workers from a range of sectors not normally covered under state assistance programs 

Protecting your rights

If you feel that your rights have been violated by an employer, you have every right to take action.

Depending on the severity of the violation, suing your employer in small claims court may be the most appropriate action.

Still, it’s vital that you first attempt to resolve the issue out of court, and that you retain this evidence of good faith in the event that you need to take the matter further. Small claims cases tend to move along more quickly than investigations carried out by the labor department, but there are other pros and cons to consider.

If your rights have been violated, it’s best to consult with a lawyer to determine the best course of action.

This blog was contributed to Workplace Fairness by an anonymous guest author. Learn more about workers’ rights here.


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