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Natural Disasters and the Work Place

in News and Features

Employers need to be ready for emergency closures before they happen!

Californians aren’t subject to dangerous hurricanes or tornadoes, but many business owners have had to contend with floods, fires, earthquakes, and even tsunami watches. Office closures in California often revolve around dangerous road conditions or business closures created by fires, flooding, freeway accidents or car chases … no matter what the cause of the delay, closure, or emergency, these conditions can appear suddenly and employers must be prepared for worker’ absences that can occur when these situations arise.

 

CALIFORNIA MANDATED “EMERGENCY ACTION PLAN”

If you have more than 10 employees, you must create a written Emergency Action Plan for your company. Your company is exempt from the written plan requirement if you employ 10 or fewer employees. However, this does not relieve you from your obligation to have a plan for handling emergencies. An Emergency Action plan must specify:

  • The people responsible for implementing the plan or portions of the plan
  • How to communicate emergencies to employees
  • Fire and emergency evacuation policies
  • The personnel assigned to provide first aid and emergency medical attention

 

Review and Implement an Emergency Closure/Natural Disaster Policy Now

Your company should have established guidelines for handling your business operations during periods of extreme workplace conditions and similar emergencies, no matter how many people you employ. This is the time to review your Emergency Action Plan and prep your employees on how to handle the situation when it comes to reporting for work. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have a website focused on emergency response resources for employers and a page tailored to family emergency planning.

Step 1: Set up a policy and determine protocols of what constitutes a viable reason to close or delay the opening your place of business; the availability of alternative workplaces or work from home arrangements; whether you will offer any leave to employees during times of extreme environmental emergencies and whether that time will be paid or unpaid (beyond what you are legally required to do); and if you will need an extension from the EDD to file any of your payroll reports or taxes.

Step 2: Establish who will be in charge of deciding whether the business will be closed, have a delayed opening, or be closing early. A good policy specifies who is authorized to make this decision so that there is no confusion among your staff on this issue.

Step 3: Identify essential personnel and operations that will need to be covered in the event of a business closure. It may be wise to have a separate policy for essential and non-essential employees.

Step 4: Establish a communication process: How will employees be contacted in the event of an emergency closing? Choose multiple methods of notifying employees of business closures, delayed openings, and early closings. These methods must include recorded messages such as phone trees, email, social media, announcements via the company’s website/intranet, or voicemail messages on a company recording. Remember: these methods may not work during the event of a power failure or an internet blackout.

Step 5: Communicate with employees your policy before your “emergency season” starts: Some areas have defined seasons when the weather causes emergencies, while other areas have emergencies the year-round. Having a written policy and having procedures in place that notifies employees in advance of what to expect when extreme weather or natural disasters happen prevents confusion – no matter what time of year these happen.

Best practice: provide an employee memo or meeting to review any new policy upon implementation and be sure to review the policy at the beginning of any season when incidents are likely to occur. It is critical that you include this policy in your company’s employee handbook.

Some additional resources:

https://www.ready.gov/business

https://www.ready.gov/make-a-plan

https://www.ready.gov/business/implementation/emergency

PAY POLICIES DURING EMERGENCY SITUATIONS

When natural disasters shut down a company’s operations or keep employees from work, employers often question their pay obligations to employees.  Even in an emergency, employers must consider their obligations under state employment laws, including pay issues related to office closures.  Your company must be familiar with any state laws pertaining to compensation situations regarding these types’ situations. Please check the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations website to confirm the latest laws and regulations.

When a natural disaster or any kind of barrier to keeping the doors open occurs—a company’s compensation policy must be clearly defined and communicated. Employees need to know if they will be paid or not. Paying an employee for an absence due to emergency closures will depend on the employee’s classification and company policy:

Nonexempt Employees

For nonexempt employees, special pay rules apply in emergencies. You must pay nonexempt employees only for the hours they worked before being sent home if your business shuts down for any of the following reasons:

  • Operations can’t start or continue due to threats to you or property, or when recommended by civil authority;
  • Public utilities such as water, gas, electricity or sewer fail; or
  • Work is interrupted by an “Act of God” or other causes not within the employer’s control.
  • Natural disasters do not alter California’s strict legal requirements for on-call work time.  During on-call time, an employee is available to work if needed, but might not be called into work. Employees are likely owed compensation when they are required to be ready to serve—even if they are off-premises. 

If your business closes at your discretion (and not for one of the above reasons): reporting time pay may be owed. When a nonexempt employee shows up for work as scheduled and is not put to work or is given less than half of his/her scheduled hours, the employee is eligible for reporting time pay: pay for one-half of the scheduled shift, but no less than two hours and no more than four hours.

Exempt Employees

During a workweek in which a worksite partially closes, and exempt employees perform any work, employers must pay such employees their full weekly salaries.

  • If exempt employees perform no work for the full workweek, employers are not obligated to pay any salary for the time of the site closure. 
  • Since performing any amount of work triggers wage liability, it may make financial sense for some employers to close operations for the entire workweek, instead of paying full compensation for limited operations. 
  • If employers open their doors but send staff home early due to deteriorating conditions, they should not attempt to deduct pay from their exempt employees’ salaries. 
  • Employers can require exempt employees to use accrued leave time for absences due to a closed worksite.
  • Employees without accrued leave who perform any work during the week are entitled to their full salaries.

OPERATING DURING A GOVERNMENT-MANDATED “STATE OF EMERGENCY”

Government-mandated states of emergency are declared only in extreme circumstances and may include a mandatory evacuation decree; an order that people stay off roads or that businesses must close. States of emergency do not afford any pay protection to employees, or automatically excuse any employees from reporting to work, absent a company policy to that effect. A good emergency policy emphasizes employee safety during a declared state of emergency.  The disciplining of any employee for not reporting to work during a state of emergency should be discouraged, or it could expose your company to a potential lawsuit.

EDD Resources For Disaster Victims And Employers

The California Employment Development Department (EDD) provides various disaster-related services to individuals and businesses affected by disasters, including assistance with filing claims for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and time extensions for filing and paying payroll taxes.

Once the Governor has issued an emergency proclamation for a specific disaster area, the one-week waiting period for UI benefits is usually waived, and individuals can begin receiving partial wage replacement benefits for the first week they’re unemployed due to the disaster.

Does your company need a policy right now?

Sequoia Personnel’s parent company, Cardinal Services has a basic employee handbook available for immediate purchase that covers inclement weather situations. Our handbook can be emailed for you to download and comes in a word format that is highlighted to show where you can quickly customize the document with your business information, logo, custom policies, & more. We also offer our customers the option to customize a handbook that specifically fits your business or industry. If you have questions about creating or implementing an Emergency & Natural Disaster Work Policy, please call (800) 342-4742 and ask to speak to your Cardinal HR Team for help.

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