With many Americans still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the next storm is already approaching. Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, is approaching Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as other islands in the Caribbean. Florida and the Southeastern states in the U.S. appear next in her anticipated path. As discussed at length in Littler’s recent article concerning Hurricane Harvey, employers have many priorities to juggle when a hurricane hits.
Safety and security are, of course, the foremost concerns for everyone in Irma’s projected path. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has information available concerning Hurricane Irma, as well as general storm and disaster preparedness. Such information is linked below and includes:
Other states that may be affected by Hurricane Irma have also posted preparedness recommendations and/or declared states of emergencies for counties likely to be impacted. Hurricane-specific information currently is available from the pertinent state agencies in Georgia and South Carolina, while Alabama has posted forecast information as it tracks the storm closely.
When facing a natural disaster, employers must deal with a series of unexpected challenges. Questions may arise, for example, about how to pay employees (exempt and nonexempt) if a work day is cut short or if all work is suspended for a few days. Depending on the severity of the damage, some employers may want to voluntarily continue paying employees their wages (full or partial), which requires some forethought and potentially tax planning.
Once the storm passes, employers may see a surge in employee requests for time off, leaves of absence, or reasonable accommodations. For example, employees that have suffered a serious injury or illness—or who have a family member who did—may be entitled to leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). State or local leave laws additionally may apply to certain employees. Dade County, Florida has its own family and medical leave ordinance, for example.1 And in South Carolina, an employer may not terminate an employee who serves as a volunteer firefighter or EMT and who responds to a declared state of emergency in lieu of coming to work.2
In addition to addressing these requests from existing employees, employers might also face questions related to employees who are displaced from their positions due to Hurricane Irma. Employees may become eligible for unemployment compensation, depending on their circumstances, applicable state law, and the terms of any federal disaster declaration.
Relatedly—and while we certainly hope Hurricane Irma does not necessitate such an outcome—employers that decide to close a facility or implement a mass layoff must evaluate whether notice will be required under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). While some states have similar plant closing statutes modelled after WARN, Florida and Georgia are not among them. Nonetheless, employers operating in the region also must be mindful that notice may be required to the state unemployment agency in the event of certain types of mass separations, as in Alabama and Georgia.
Employers preparing to tackle Hurricane Irma and these associated issues are encouraged to consult the resources mentioned above and may also wish to review hurricane recovery information provided by the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL offers basic information about Disaster Unemployment Assistance, Unemployment Insurance, National Dislocated Worker Grants, and safety and health issues.
We hope that our friends and clients stay safe during the storm.