Fast burning wildfires in California have again this year caused loss of life and destroyed many homes and communities. Once an immediate crisis has passed, people are left holding a lot of emotions. Survivors have a lot of rebuilding to do and are now expected to adapt to a “new normal” both at home and at work.
How should an employer handle employee workplace issues, such as time off and requests for leaves of absence in a way that supports their workers and allows them to run their business efficiently?
Various Leaves of Absence Requests
If you have 50 or more employees, eligible employees may elect to take leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) for a serious health condition caused by a disaster. Additionally, employees affected by a natural disaster who must care for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition may also be entitled to leave.
If you have fewer than 50 employees, many employers offer personal leaves of absence to their employees. This would be a good time to review your policies and ensure they are adaptable to the needs of your employees and your business.
Another option for a leave for employers with five or more employees falls under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). An employee who is physically or emotionally injured, as the result of a disaster, may be entitled to leave as a reasonable accommodation, so long as it would not place undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.
How to Pay Employees
Non Exempt (Hourly) Employees
Employers are only required to pay non-exempt employees for hours actually worked. In other words, businesses are not required to pay non-exempt employees if they are not working, including times when the employer closes its doors or reduces hours of operation, whether or not forced to do so by inclement weather or emergencies.
However, in California “reporting time pay” is required to be paid to employees who show up for work and are turned away at the door or dismissed before the end of their scheduled shifts, by the employer. Reporting time pay requires the employer to pay the employee one half of their scheduled shift, no more than four hours, no fewer than two hours. That said, if work is interrupted by an act of God or other causes not within the employer’s control, reporting time pay requirements are not applicable.
Nonetheless, even if your business is not open due to weather, flooding or any other natural disaster you are always free to pay employees for that time, and may also permit them to use their paid sick leave time or vacation time.
Unusual Remote Work
Often severe weather, road closures or other delays can result in an employee being stranded on the road or at home. Remember, any employee who performs work for the business, such as taking phone calls or answering e-mails, must be compensated for that time even if done away from the office.
Pay for Exempt (Salaried) Employees
Exempt employees under the FLSA must be paid on a “salary basis” and earn a full day’s pay when they work any part of the day, regardless of the quality or quantity of the work performed. This means that if a business is closed because of inclement weather or other natural disasters and an exempt employee is ready, willing, and able to work, he/she must be paid for that day. If an exempt employee does not work for an entire workweek (for personal reasons or because the business is closed), the exempt employee need not be paid for that time.
If the business is open and an exempt employee elects to stay home to make repairs or handle personal business, an employer may “dock” their salary in full day increments. In these instances, and including situations when exempt employees elect to arrive late or leave early for personal reasons, employers may also deduct accrued leave time in full or partial day increments as long as the employee receives his or her full pay for the week.
On-Call and Waiting Time Pay
Power outages are common during natural disasters, and many employers will require their employees to wait out or work through such power failures. In most cases, any employee who is required to remain at the employer’s premises or close by and therefore unable to use that time for his own benefit must be compensated for that time. When you “restrict” an employee’s time, they are eligible for compensation.
Why Volunteering is Not a Good Idea
Employers should avoid having non-exempt employees “volunteer” to assist during an emergency, particularly if those duties benefit the company. Exempt employees who volunteer to help will not be entitled to any additional compensation.
Non-exempt employees must be paid for all time worked, even if they offer to work and help make repairs for “free,” with one exception: Employers may accept free work from employees of government or non-profit agencies who volunteer out of public-spiritedness to perform work that is not at all similar to their regular duties.
Practical Ways to Help Employees Get Back on Track
• Continue to process payroll in a timely manner.
• Allow affected employees to work from home if possible. Clearly communicate to all employees exactly who is and is not permitted to work from home, whether overtime is permitted, and how to record time worked outside of the company’s premises.
• Be sensitive to the fact that not all employees will be able to work remotely, and therefore should consider alternative arrangements like temporary or shared offices.
• Allow employees to donate their Paid Time Off or Vacation time to fellow employees. While the initial disaster itself may be past, employees may need time off to resolve matters with insurance, doctors, etc. The financial burden an employee may experience due to a disaster can be alleviated by this type of option. For an example of a PTO/Vacation Donation Program and Donation Form, please contact one of our HR Directors for assistance at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.399.5331.
• Contact your benefits provider and/or Employee Assistance Program to determine what other resources are available to your employees.
What Might My Employees Be Experiencing After a Disaster or Traumatic Event?
Shock and denial are typical responses to disasters or traumatic events, especially shortly after the event. Both shock and denial are normal protective reactions. Once the initial shock subsides, reactions vary from one person to another. Per the American Psychological Association, the following are common responses to a traumatic event and it may be of help to share these with your managers and employees:
• Feelings may become intense and sometimes are unpredictable. They may become more irritable than usual, and their mood may change back and forth dramatically. Your employees may feel anxious or nervous, or even become depressed.
• Thoughts and behavior patterns are affected. Employees may experience repeated and vivid memories of evacuating or seeing the fire approach, for example. These flashbacks may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. Employees may find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions, or become more easily confused. Sleep and eating patterns also may be disrupted. Awareness of this can assist employers in working with employees through the difficult days ahead.
• Recurring emotional reactions are common. Reminders or “triggers” such as smoke, ash, sirens or fire trucks can create anxiety.
• Interpersonal relationships can become strained, particularly if employees are living in temporary housing. In some instances, employees may find themselves experiencing arguments with family, friends or co-workers. On the other hand, an employee may become withdrawn and isolated and avoid their usual activities.
• Physical symptoms may accompany the extreme stress. For example, headaches, nausea and chest pain may result and may require medical attention. Pre-existing medical conditions may worsen due to the stress.
It is important to realize that there is no one ‘standard’ pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences. Please let us know if you have additional questions around these issues.