Florida employees who evacuated for Hurricane Irma could be putting their jobs in jeopardy if they do not return to work when their employer resumes normal business hours.
Some Hurricane Irma evacuees traveled as far as Georgia to get away from the storm, and now many are struggling to get back home. That has not stopped local businesses from opening back up, and employees are expected to be there.
If you do not show up, you could be fired, according to West Palm Beach employment attorney Arthur Schofield.
“If you don’t show up for what you consider personal safety risks, that is certainly a wise decision personally, but when you are making that decision, you are potentially putting your job in jeopardy,” Schofield told Contact 5 Investigator Merris Badcock on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, there are not many laws in Florida that protect employees from losing their jobs.”
Floridians work under an ‘at will doctrine’, meaning they can quit or be fired at any time for any reason, as long as it is not illegal.
According to Schofield, firing an employee for not returning to work promptly after Hurricane Irma is not illegal. “As tough as that decision sounds, it is not illegal.”
Paying employees during severe weather is another issue Florida workers face. According to Schofield, if your business closes because of hurricane, salaried employees will continue to get paid under the Fair Labor Standards Act. There is no law that mandates employers pay hourly employees if they close a business due to severe weather.
Employers could also choose to pay out hourly employees from their vacation time if they close for severe weather, according to Schofield.
“There have [situations] where I think the employer has been a little hardlined in expecting people to be back to the office in a moment or twos notice of opening back up, particularly since people left the state. I would hope most employers would be reasonable and understanding,” said Schofield, but also noting that firing an employee for not showing up on time after Hurricane Irma is not illegal.
Recently, a Pizza Hut manager came under fire for threatening to fire employees for trying to evacuate before the store was ready to close. On the flip side, Royal Caribbean used one of their cruise ships to help their Florida employees evacuate the state ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Schofield notes that there are some rare exceptions. “If we have a mandatory evacuation, and the employer is saying, ‘I do not care what the cities or the governments are telling you, we want you here,’ then there could be some protection under the Florida Whistleblower Act,” said Schofield. “But it would be a very extreme set of circumstances.”
If your employer puts you in unsafe working conditions – like working outside in the middle of hurricane – you may be able to file a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). According to the federal agency, “workers have a right to a safe workplace.”