Photo: Texas National Guard via Flickr
This weekend, Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, is rushing toward Florida after completely devastating Caribbean islands earlier this week. As the hurricane aims towards its next target, Floridian residents are facing hard choices between safety and job security as gas shortages, miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and evacuation orders make showing up to work on time a herculean task, if not an impossibility for some employees.
Do employers look kindly on these extenuating circumstances? The reasonable ones do. But for the unreasonable ones who may want workers to risk life and limb to get into the office, Ladders talked to Florida-based employment lawyers in the midst of handling their own hurricane preparations about what rights employees have during a hurricane.
If you skip work due to an evacuation order, you can still get fired
Each employee’s circumstance would need to be handled on a case-by-case basis, but in general, the outlook for Florida employees is grim as there are no overall laws protecting them from immediate dismissal if they choose to flee during the storm.
Even if you live in a county under a mandatory evacuation order, the law won’t protect you from being fired if that’s why you don’t show up to work.
Since Florida is a right-to-work state, both employees and employers have the right to make employment decisions like quitting or terminations as long as these actions are not unlawful.
But what if you couldn’t show up to work because you’re waiting in line for gas for your car, or you’re putting up shutters in your home, or you’re busy evacuating your family? The law is unsympathetic here, too.
“From an employer’s standpoint, they would consider that a no-call, no-show. The fact that you’re unable to get gas, that’s not a protected right,” Tampa-based employment lawyer Erik DeL’Etoile said. “If they physically have to flee their homes, that’s not the employer’s concern.”
Harsh, but true. For some employees, that may be a wake-up call to get a new job with a more compassionate company. “If this is really how they’re going to conduct themselves in a time of need, it’s probably best not to work for them. But that’s a difficult decision for people who need their jobs,” DeL’Etoile said.
What about OSHA?
There are no specific Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws requiring companies to evacuate their employees during a hurricane. Of course, OSHA regulations enforce your right to work in a reasonably safe workplace, so if your workplace is endangering your life, you can make the case to them.
“There’s no reason a business should be operating during an actual hurricane. If for whatever reason, they wanted you to do that, then there might be an OSHA issue,” Venice-based employment lawyer Frank Malatesta said. “But we’re not talking about four days beforehand so you can put up shutters. Even if it’s not common sense, there’s still that expectation.”
Under certain cases, you can also use the Family Medical Leave Act to argue your absence if you had to skip work during a hurricane to attend to a direct family member, Malatesta said.
Your best advice? Communicate with your employer.
It may be uncomfortable and awkward to explain why you don’t want to show up to work, but open communication with your employer is needed not just to clear up any misunderstandings, but also to help your case before a judge if your misunderstanding reaches that point.
“It’s always best to reach out to your employers in advance,” DeL’Etoile said. “Many times, employees feel like their employer is being unreasonable, but they don’t say anything to their employer.”
Before you make any decisions about skipping work, DeL’Etoile advises employees to reach out to human resources about why the company wants you working and why you need to evacuate.
Above all, Malatesta advises employees to document everything. “Make sure you put your communication in some kind of written form,” he said. You want to get your employer’s reply and reasoning for being unreasonable in writing.
Take a recording of emergency-related government speeches on gas shortages, so if need be, you can play that before the judge. That’s what Malatesta said he advised a young woman who was terminated for being a no-show at work after not being able to get gas for her car.
When it comes to these cases, it will be your word against your employer’s, and you will need all the written ammunition you can get.