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Some Workers Fleeing Hurricane Irma Risked Losing Their Jobs

Topics: Current Events
hurricane irma
Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr

Prior to Hurricane Irma hitting the state, Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged residents to evacuate — and business owners to be flexible.

“Please, be compassionate with your employees as they prepare for this storm and evacuate,” he asked Florida business owners, two days before the storm made landfall.

Some employers ignored his request. Workers ranging from emergency personnel to city government workers to restaurant staff reported being asked to stay on during the hurricane.

It makes sense that first responders would be asked to stay during a disaster. But Pizza Hut employees?

The Washington Post reports that one Pizza Hut franchise asked their workers to stay until 24 hours before the storm — something experts agree is risky, due to traffic and gas shortages.

“If you do it later, you may be caught in a flood of traffic trying to leave the area,” Miami Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said before the storm. “You may find yourself in a car during a hurricane, which is not the best place to be.”

Can You Be Fired for Evacuating?

The majority of private-sector employees in the U.S. are employed at-will, which means that they can be fired for any reason or none at all, with a few exceptions. Unfortunately, that means that in many cases, it’s probably legal for your boss to fire you for evacuating in the case of a hurricane like Irma.

“You can be fired for a good reason [or] a bad reason—as long as it’s not an unlawful reason, which is usually discrimination,” Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife program at Harvard Law School and a former Department of Labor employee, told The Atlantic.

Union employees may have protections built into their contracts that prevent their employers from terminating them for evacuating. For everyone else, the best protection might be state law — depending, of course, on which state you live in. Florida, for example, has a whistleblower law that legal experts say may (or may not) protect evacuees.

Per Money magazine:

Stephanie Bornstein, a law professor at the University of Florida, told Money that an employee can potentially argue that a mandatory evacuation would fit under the whistleblower law. It’s happened before in Florida, although without much success. Bornstein cited a case decided in 2000 in which a Florida appellate court held that a nursing home employee who failed to show up to work for three days during severe fires could not use a mandatory evacuation order to support her whistleblower claim.

Of course, your boss shouldn’t need to be legally compelled to look out for your safety. Endangering workers isn’t just the wrong way to do business, it’s bad for the bottom line. Unless you’re a first responder, there’s almost no reason why your employer or manager should force you to come to work when everyone else is fleeing the area. But bad employers and bad bosses exist, so it pays to understand your rights — even if they’re more limited than we would like.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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