When Fire Strikes: What do employers do in case of a disaster?

Lorrie Ray, Director, Membership Development

MSEC members in the Colorado Springs area of Colorado, and in some other areas of the state, are facing a disaster of immense proportion. Sadly, many employees have either lost their homes, or have been evacuated and are not able to return to their homes. Some business offices have also been evacuated and have been shut down temporarily.   So, what are the things employers consider in these circumstances?

We have spoken with our members in the affected areas, and here are items of focus for them:

Does the employer have an inclement weather policy? MSEC’s Paid Time Off Policies Survey reports that 83 percent of employers do have such a policy. This type of policy provides a process to follow when employees cannot report to work through no fault of their own. Forty-seven percent of those policies provide that the employer will pay employees if the facility is shut down for a short period of time, but in fact, employers are often more generous than the policy requires. During the 2003 spring snowstorm that shut down the majority of business along Colorado’s Front Range, 71 percent paid non-exempt employees for this time.

What are the pay guidelines when an employee cannot report to work, and what are the guidelines when the business cannot open its doors?  In fact, the law creates certain requirements.  Hourly “non-exempt” employees are required by law to only be paid for hours actually worked.  There is no federal requirement (or any requirement in Colorado) for employees to earn “show-up” pay.  Employers may compensate employees if they wish, or allow employees to use paid time off.  If the payment is not required by law, it is not counted for the purposes of calculating overtime.

If the employer’s facility is closed, salaried “exempt” employees are entitled to receive their regular salary for any week that they work at least part of the workweek.  If the facility is open, and the exempt employee cannot report to work, the wisest course of action would be to allow the employee to use available paid time off for any week when the employee worked.  (NOTE FOR PUBLIC SECTOR EMPLOYERS: Depending on your policies, governmental entities may be able to dock exempt employees pay, even if the facility is closed.)

How can employees help one another?  Twenty-five percent of employers have some type of policy that allows employees to donate paid time off to other employees.  This is a policy that is often driven by employees wanting to help one another, and of course, a disaster is a one of those times that employees who have not been affected really want to help someone who has been affected.

Could the employer provide a leave without pay with a job guarantee? Thirty-nine percent of employers have personal leave policies that allow leave for an extended period beyond 30 days.  At the conclusion of the leave period, the employee must return to work, or risk losing the position.

Are any employers creating specific polices to deal with this disaster?  Employers are considering a one-time policy due to the scope of the fire damage and the surrounding evacuation.  One sample provided for employees to be paid for two days when they were initially evacuated.  After those two days, the policy allowed employees to use vacation time for time they cannot be at work.  If the employee had no vacation, the employee could use sick leave. If the employee had no sick leave, the employee could borrow against future vacation accrual.  This policy was open-ended, so the employer could review it on a daily or weekly basis in order to determine whether it would continue, or whether it would be modified as events unfold. Call us at 800.884.1328 if you need help with such a policy.

The fact that there is a holiday next week may cause some employers to change their current policy.  Forty-two percent of employers do not pay holiday pay if the employee is not present the day before and after the holiday.  Given the generous nature of employers during the 2003 snowstorm, it wouldn’t be surprising to find employers paying for the 4th of July holiday even if the employee did not report on July 2 or 5.