Two days before Hurricane Irma was expected to hit South Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., urged residents to flee inland as though their lives depended on it.
“You need to go now,” he said at a news conference Friday. “This is a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.”
Then Scott shifted his attention to Florida’s business owners. “Please,” he said, “be compassionate with your employees as they prepare for this storm and evacuate.”
On the previous evening, however, the Naples Daily News ran a story about a city manager who plans to fire an employee who refused to work through the wind and rain.
“Our responsibility is to protect life and property, to prepare for this storm, and to be ready to begin post-recovery operations immediately after passage of the storm,” Naples City Manager Bill Moss told the newspaper. “To do so, we need employees, equipment and sufficient supplies.”
Scott’s plea for compassion – one of those words that means different things to different people – isn’t enforceable, it turns out.
Terminating a city employee who shirked hurricane duties is legal in Florida, as it would be in other states. So is dismissing many workers who fail to show up for work at a private business, even if they’d hit the road to avoid floods.
In the United States, there is no such thing as disaster leave. Union contracts protect some workers, and mandatory evacuation orders make it illegal for people to stay directly in a hurricane’s path, once that warning has been given.
The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s laws, meanwhile, offer some protection. Employment lawyers assert most workers have a strong case for declining to work in an unsafe environment.
But “at-will employment” is the norm nationwide, meaning: Workers can be shown the door for basically anything, as long as the reason is legal. (Firing someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion is illegal.)
Some states have exceptions. A “good faith” rule that shows up in 11 states, including California, Nevada and Massachusetts, gives workers recourse if their employer fires them to avoid paying them retirement benefits or something equally egregious.
Florida, though, lacks extra protections.
“You can be fired for a lot of reasons we would find morally reprehensible,” said Mary Ziegler, an employment law professor at the Florida State University College of Law.
Even those who keep their jobs through the disaster but hunker down elsewhere face economic challenges: 36 percent of workers can’t take a sick day without losing wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and most of them are in the bottom half of earners.
“People at the bottom of the income ladder are in a pretty tough spot,” Ziegler said.
Low-income workers frequently lose money when they miss work to sleep off the flu or tend to a sick kid or escape a life-threatening storm.
Hurricane-related firings, though, are far less common. In times of crisis, people watch what’s unfolding in devastated communities – and dismissing a worker who chose to evacuate rather than clock in could tarnish a company’s reputation.
“It’d be a chancy business for an employer to discharge somebody right now,” said Julius Getman, a professor and labor historian at the University of Texas School of Law. “This is a time when public opinion would be strongly against it.”