Reddit’s legal advice thread, r/legaladvice, is getting a rare series of requests as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida: Those living in the state are asking if they can be fired for evacuating from the storm.
The 250-plus comment thread includes posts from retailers to hospital workers and provides a window into the extreme expectations employers expect of their employees during a natural disaster. One post from a Florida worker warns that his employer is “showing no signs of giving us any chance to evacuate,” and that he may lose his job if he skips out on work during Irma. Another thread details an Amazon Warehouse employee asking if they will be fired for evacuating from the region during the storm.
“I’m not going to risk my life for 4 dollars above minimum wage where I count items on a shelf for ten hours a day,” poster u/Digivee told a fellow Redditor.
Meanwhile, nurse u/TomTheNurse shares a troubling story about the way his employer is handling the storm. According to his post, his South Florida hospital is skimping out on paying off-duty staff while on-call. No overtime will be paid outside of nurses’ daily 12-hour shifts, even though the hospital requires employees to remain on the premises during downtime. This is particularly unusual in u/TomTheNurse’s experience, as his former employer paid overtime for staff when they were on location during a hurricane—even when they were not on duty.
“My understanding is that if I am required to be at work, I am required to be paid,” u/TomTheNurse said in his original post. “I understand [hospital higher-ups] are not obligated to pay us overtime until we actually work more than 40 hours in a given week. But not paying us at all while we are at work seems ridiculous.”
There’s good reason to fear a vengeful boss firing employees for resisting to unfair demands. Florida is an “at-will” employment state, which means employers can terminate an employee at any time without warning. As law firm Ayo and Iken reports, Florida employers cannot terminate an employee for an illegal reason, such as racial discrimination. But the state allows employers leeway to fire employees for simple and mundane reasons, giving supervisors the power to pressure their employees to come in during a natural disaster.
Florida doesn’t have any laws protecting employees during hurricane evacuations, either, according to Employment Law Daily. However, federal laws still apply to businesses when handling employees during the storm.
For instance, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees have a right to leave their post in order to attend to a serious health condition experienced by themselves or a family member. A father who needs to administer refrigerated medication to her daughter during a power outage has the right to leave work to take care of his child.
Employers cannot force employees to work in unreasonably unsafe conditions, either. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the federal government requires employers to provide safe working conditions for their employees, which includes the time employees spend commuting to work (and whether such a commute puts an employee into the path of a hurricane). Employees can file complaints against an employer who puts a worker in danger, which means employers would be wise to give their employees time off due to the storm.
As for on-call workers who will be expected to do hurricane duty, the federal government has a law on that as well. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires emergency and maintenance workers serving “on-call” duties to receive pay for hours spent at work, even if they aren’t allowed to leave the premises. In u/TomTheNurse’s case, this means that his hospital should be compensating him for his hours off-duty, in part because u/TomTheNurse works in his hospital’s ER wing.
“I worked at one hospital during a storm and I was there for over 100 hours before I was relieved and I was paid for the entire time I was there,” u/TomTheNurse shared in his post. “They even gave us [overtime].”
As Hurricane Irma draws closer to the continental U.S., Florida is already under stress from the storm. Shoppers have accused retailers of price gouging life-saving supplies, and one Florida sheriff has vowed to arrest citizens with outstanding warrants at shelters if they look for safety. Even in a natural disaster, it seems humanity takes a backseat to rule-abiding and a bottom line.