It’s been a month after the sweeping passage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the jobless claims have already increased by 62,000. Experts believe it is mainly due to the devastating effects of the natural disasters that hit the country. Along with the recovery process that seems it still has a long was to go, thousands of employees are called to cope with serious work issues, including transfers to other towns or states and even unemployment after their employer’s business has been damaged or ruined.
If you find yourself struggling with work-related problems after the latest natural disaster, here are your rights and what you are entitled to get by law, as well as where to turn to seek help and assistance during these difficult times.
You Still Have Your Job But…
The Business is Closed Because of The Disaster
Besides qualifying for unemployment pay while the workplace is trying to restore all damage caused by the disaster so that it becomes workable again (or while looking for work elsewhere if the company shuts its doors forever), you also qualify for the following:
As a salaried, exempt employee, you should be paid a full salary if the employer closes the business due to natural disasters or even inclement weather. The amount of money you will get depends on how long the business was closed. According to the US Department of Labor, if your employer closed their business for less than a full workweek, they must pay your full salary. If, however, the business is closed for more than a full workweek, the employer is not obliged to pay you.
You are entitled to payment even if:
- You have no accrued benefits on the leave bank.
- Your balance in the accrued leave bank is negative.
- Your accrued leave benefits are limited and reducing the accrued leave with lead to a negative balance.
- Your employer doesn’t have a bona fide benefits plan.
At this point, it should be noted that private employers might deduct from your leave bank for any days that the company was closed, whether for partial-day or full-day absences, provided, of course, you receive payment that is no less than your guaranteed salary.
If you are an hourly, nonexempt employee and work a partial week because your employer’s business is closed after a natural disaster, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies to the hours you have actually worked. This means that if your employer is unable to provide you with work (under these specific circumstances), you will not be paid for the hours you would have otherwise worked. Now, about whether to apply vacation days or not, it depends on the company and their internal policies.
Note: Check your state’s policies and regulations regarding paying employees that report to work as scheduled and find their workplace closed. Depending on your state, you can be compensated for up to 4 hours of that day’s work.
Paychecks Have Been Destroyed
During a disaster, paychecks may be destroyed. Many times, the employer does not even get the chance to print them. There is no reason to worry. The U.S Department of Labor requires employers to pay their employees for that last week the soonest possible. Now, if you have stayed behind to help during clean up after the natural disaster, you can expect payment for the hours you have helped too.
The Conditions Required You to Work Overtime Onsite
The FLSA requires covered, nonexempt employees to be paid the federal minimum wage for the hours they have actually worked. If you have worked in excess of 40 hours because the conditions forced you to remain onsite, then you should be paid overtime at 1 ½ times the regular rate for the extra hours you have worked.
The Business is Open But You Are Unable to Get There
If you can’t physically make it to work during or after a natural disaster or inclement weather, many times this particular type of absence is considered an absence for personal reasons. In the exact opposite case, where you have reported to work but are sent home due to a natural disaster or inclement weather, you may be eligible for a payment. Check both your employer’s company policies and your state’s laws to find out.
What You Need to Know About PTO (Paid Time Off)
The use of PTO is affected by natural disasters and is largely governed by state law. That being said, your employer may take deductions from your leave bank for absence, as long as you receive your full salary (applies to exempt employees). Note, though, that there are states that consider PTO a wage. In this case, mandating the use of PTO during natural disasters could be challenging. Better check the company’s policies to see what you should get.
You Have Lost Your Job
Facing a job loss can be very frustrating, especially after spending many years with a particular employer. Right now, there are thousands of employees in the exact same position as you. Many employers are unable to do business because they are called to handle structural damage due to the flooding from Harvey. As a result, they cannot pay their employees. Unfortunately, although there is no doubt that employers who cannot do business after a natural disaster want to get back on track the soonest possible, there are no laws that dictate they should pay their employees.
There is a beam of hope in the case they have insurance coverage for such events. If this is your situation, you just have to be patient for a few months (best case scenario, weeks) while the employer has the damage repaired.
Note: To allow yourself to get through such disturbing and totally unexpected situations, it is highly recommended to build up a safety net in your bank account. Otherwise, you may have to turn to family members and friends for a temporary loan so you can pay your bills on time.
You should check into your employment contract. Is there a severance package for employees that are fired without warning or cause? If yes, you are lucky because you may not have been fired but you did lose your job without warning or cause, right? In this case, you have a severance package waiting for you.
Consider The WARN Act
First of all, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act necessitates employers that employ, at least, 100 workers to provide a 60-day notice (written) before ordering a plant closing or a mass layoff. The 60-day notification should go to:
- union reps,
- non-union employees that are also affected, and
- government officials.
If your employer doesn’t adhere to the federal Act, they can be held accountable, which can result in hefty penalties for your employer. Although there are exceptions to this law when the closing or layoff is caused by a natural disaster (for “unforeseeable business circumstances”), there are several states with mini-WARN laws that contain requirements which are even more firmer than the federal law. Plus, an exception in this case is never automatic.
Government Benefits That May Help You Out
The good news is that there is a federal program, called Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program, which has been specifically created to provide benefits to employees that have lost their job after a major disaster. It works pretty much like unemployment insurance. So, if you qualify, you will receive benefits for up to 6 months or 26 weeks (weekly payments – no less than ½ of the state’s average weekly UI benefits) in the state you were employed. The total amount you will get depends on your salary before the disaster.
To qualify for DUA, you need to satisfy two major requirements:
- Your job loss should be a direct result of a natural disaster or other major disaster.
- You do not qualify for regular UI (Unemployment Insurance) from any US state.
Of course, you also need to be an active job seeker looking for a new job (you will have to provide proof that you are on a job hunt on a weekly basis), and be willing to take on one if it becomes available. However, these are minor requirements compared to the first 2 (the bullet points).
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expects the recovery of the affected areas will be a long and tedious process. As a means to help those that have become jobless after the most recent natural disaster, FEMA offers:
- Customer rep jobs (in Texas, Maryland, Virginia, and Puerto Rico) – You will be called to respond to those seeking disaster assistance. As a FEMA customer representative, you will be responsible for providing help to disaster victims, as well as information about the available programs to people applying for disaster assistance (and also process their claim requests). Visit FEMA Careers website for more, immediate, temporary jobs.
- On-call reservists positions – The agency is constantly looking for reservists to help first responders and disaster survivors during an emergency or disaster. Depending on your professional skills, you will have a wide range of responsibilities, including disability integration, financial management, environment historic preservation, and more. For more information, check out FEMA Reservist
For additional information on you rights after a natural disaster, as well as other services provided under the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act), you can visit OSHA Publications, Workers Page, and Employers Page websites.