Leave Policy/Compliance

Should Employers Pay for ‘Hurricane Time Off?’

In the past, employers have paid for time off during weather disasters. After last year’s huge losses, that may be changing. The important thing is to have a policy ahead of the storm.

Wilma, Frances, and, of course, Katrina.

Say those names a year or so ago and you might have been talking about someone’s cute kids. Now the images are those of death, damage, devastation … and monumental problems for business.

As Labor Day marks the start of the most intense part of hurricane season, businesses are wrestling with questions coming out of last year’s record-smashing storm year. Many are workforce-related.

Companies in hurricane-prone areas have traditionally been flexible about granting workers paid time off to prepare for storms and to clean up after them. After last year’s tremendous losses, that may be changing.

“We’re Not Letting You Go Early. Be more Prepared.”

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that one example is R.L. Schreiber, Inc., a food manufacturer near Ft. Lauderdale. The general practice of companies in the area has been to let employees leave early with pay on a hurricane warning, 24 hours before landfall, a hurricane watch, 36 hours before, or over time in a graduated departure. Now Schreiber controller Ted Kennedy is telling workers, “We’re not going to let you go early, but we’re going to expect that you’re more prepared.”

Another way to put it: Buy that bottled water, and gas up your vehicles ahead of time … and on your own time.

After the Storm: FLSA

Whether employees are paid for time off after the storm is, in part, controlled by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Nonexempts don’t need to be paid when they don’t work. However, there could be morale or public relations issues if an employer is seen as taking advantage of the situation and adding to the misery.

The situation with exempts is more complex. If the business is open, and an exempt chooses to not come in, for whatever reason, an October 28, 2005, Department of Labor opinion letter (FLSA2005-46) states an employer may take full-day deductions, counting the absence as “personal” days, without impinging on exempt status. Partial day deductions on exempts are not allowed. If the business is closed, however, exempts must be paid their full salary, because it’s the employer preventing them from working, and that’s on the employer’s dime.

“The important thing,” says Ruth Storrings, HR director of AlphaStaff, a large employment agency based in South Florida, “is have a pay policy before a hurricane. The policy should comply with FLSA regulations.”

Pay for Travel to Alternate Worksites

Last year’s storms also raised questions about paying for time spent traveling to alternate worksites when normal places of business were shut down. Normally, travel to and from work doesn’t qualify for pay. But when AlphaStaff rerouted some of its South Florida employees to its Atlanta offices, those who made the 8-hour drive were paid for their time on the road. Those who took the short 1-hour flight were not.

These questions need not be limited to the East and Gulf Coasts, nor to hurricane situations. They could apply in any foreseeable weather-related work stoppage, such as a major snowstorm or flood. If these events occur in your area, what will your policy be?

“The important thing,” says Storrings, “is that you have to treat people properly. These are people who help you fulfill your obligations during a crisis. And they do remember that.”

What’s your time-off for disasters policy? And is it fair to ask employees to foot the bill when there’s nothing they can do about the weather? Use the “Share Your Comments” button and let us know your thoughts.