As the entire nation reels over the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, employer rights and responsibilities regarding conducting business during major storms is back in the spotlight. One of the most frequently asked questions revolves around whether employers have the right to require employees to work during a hurricane or other national disaster, and if employees can be fired for failure to do so. Although the answer to these questions seems simple on the surface, there are several important factors to consider.
"At Will" Employment
The state of Florida is a "right to work" or "at will" employment state. This means without a written employment contract in place, an employer can terminate an employee at any time, without cause, as long as the termination is not discriminatory.
Based on this, a Florida employer would be well within his or her rights to fire an employee for failing to show up to work during a hurricane or to return to work promptly following the storm.
State of Emergency and Evacuations
A declared state of emergency does not apply to private businesses, so this would also not impact your ability to continue conducting operations during a storm. If a mandatory evacuation is issued, however, employees could have legal standing to fight a termination. This is because staying in the area to report to work would put them in direct violation of a legal decree requiring them to leave the area.
When deciding whether to continue operating during a storm, it's important to remember that as an employer, you're responsible for keeping your employees safe while they're on the job. If a state of emergency has been declared and your workers are injured due to a falling tree, building collapse, or other storm-related accident during the course of their employment, you would likely be held liable and may face civil lawsuits.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to requiring employees to work during a national disaster, it's often a case of just because you can doesn't necessarily mean you should. Always put the safety of yourself and your employees first and use common sense when deciding whether to continue normal business operations.
If you do continue with business as usual, make sure you have evacuation and disaster recovery plans in place in case conditions deteriorate. Communicate clearly with your employees about what's expected of them, how soon they'll need to return to work if operations cease, and how to reach you if traditional communications are shut down.
If possible, give your employees enough flexibility to ensure they're able to prepare their homes and take care of their families until the danger has passed. It's better to be safe than sorry, and showing some compassion for your employees can pay back tenfold in the form of work ethic and company loyalty.