Natural disasters create challenging HR issues and questions that add stress to employers and employees at the worst possible moments — when they need to be focusing on healing, recovery, and rebuilding.
To help alleviate some potential stress, we’ve put together the top five frequently asked HR questions and answers during an emergency.
What is the standard for paying an employee after a natural disaster?
When the company closes due to inclement weather, non-exempt employees (those who are entitled to overtime) need to be paid only for actual hours worked. For non-exempt employees, the company may:
- Pay the employee for the time, even though they did not work;
- Require they take the day off unpaid;
- Require they use any available vacation time or PTO; or
- Allow employees to choose between taking an unpaid day or using vacation or PTO.
All four options have their merits. We generally recommend option 4, allowing employees the choice of using vacation time or PTO. When the company closes due to inclement weather, exempt employees (those ineligible for overtime and generally paid on a salary basis) must be paid their regular salary. This holds true whether the office closure is for full or partial days. You may, however, require exempt employees to use accrued vacation or PTO during a closure if you have a policy that indicates you will do so or if doing so has been your practice in the past. If your office has closed for weather in the past and you have not required exempt employees to use vacation or PTO, it would be risky to take up that practice now.
When it comes to accrued vacation or PTO, it is safest to give employees advanced notice if there are situations where you will use their accrued hours whether they like it or not. If this is the first time the office has been closed due to weather and you have no policy in place, now is the time to decide how you want to handle these kinds of situations in the future.
For exempt employees who do not have sufficient vacation or PTO to cover the closure, you are still required to provide them with their full regular salary. For example, if your business is closed for two or three days, but an exempt salaried employee worked at another time during the workweek, the full salary must be paid. The only scenario where you will not be required to pay an exempt employee their full salary is if the office is closed for an entire workweek (or if the employee is unable to come in for an entire workweek) and they do no work at all from home.
Our business is temporarily closed due to inclement weather. We do have some employees that offered to work from home until the business can re-open. Can we offer this?
If an employee can complete their job remotely, the employer may grant permission for employees to work from home temporarily. It is important to clearly articulate in a telecommuting policy or a work-from-home policy that a high level of performance is still required and that all non- exempt employees should accurately track their time to be paid for all hours worked.
Although not all employees may have the capacity or ability to work from home, supervisors can grant permission to employees that can work remotely.
What job protected leaves might apply to a natural disaster?
Employee leave for a natural disaster may qualify under FMLA (50+ employees) if the disaster results in or exacerbates a serious health condition for an employee or their family member with a serious health condition. In this case, the employer must provide relevant notifications and offer job protected leave.
An employee called up for military or national guard service would also be entitled to job protected leave. Employees with disabilities may also need an accommodation in order to complete essential functions of the job. Other leave protections may also apply, such as leave for employees to act as emergency first responders, participate in the civil air patrol, or other state specific leaves.
Our company wants to set up a way for their coworkers to donate vacation time to an employee who was greatly affected by this natural disaster. Is this permissible?
Yes, this is permissible. According to the Society of Human Resources (SHRM), A PTO donation program is a great benefit for employees in the event of a leave of absence when their own PTO bank is exhausted. The program guidelines, including wage details and eligibility, are at the employer’s discretion. However, as with all employee policies and programs, we recommend clearly communicating them with all employees ahead of time.
When a business closes due to a natural disaster, is unemployment available to the employees?
Yes, it’s likely that an employee in such a situation would be eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). If an employee is laid-off as a result of the disaster, they may also be eligible for traditional state unemployment insurance. To be eligible specifically for DUA programs, an individual often must meet all the following eligibility requirements:
- Not be eligible for regular UI.
- Be unemployed as a direct result of the disaster.
- Be able and available for work, unless injured as a direct result of the disaster (see conditions below).
- File an application for DUA within 30 days of the date of the announcement of availability of DUA.
- Have not refused an offer of employment in a suitable position.
One of the following conditions of unemployment or inability to perform services in self-employment must have occurred as a direct result of the disaster:
The individual has had a week of unemployment following the date the major disaster began.
The individual is unable to reach their place of employment.
The individual was scheduled to start work, but the job no longer exists, or the individual was unable to reach the job.
The individual became the major supporter of the household because the head of the household died as a direct result of the disaster.
The individual cannot work because of an injury caused as a direct result of the major disaster.
The individual lost a majority of income or revenue because the employer or self-employed business was damaged, destroyed, or closed by the federal government.
Suffering a monetary loss due to damage of property or crops does not automatically entitle an individual to DUA. Applicants must follow the instructions in the announcement and file for DUA based on the filing method used by the state (e.g., in-person, mail, telephone, or internet).
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