Seyfarth Synopsis: As employers begin to pick up the pieces following Hurricane Harvey, management will likely encounter questions about employee pay, benefits, and leaves of absence during and after this disaster, and may also have questions about how to help their workers get by during this difficult time. After making sure your workers are safe, and as you start to rebuild and repair, read on for practical guidance on these pressing issues.

This past weekend Hurricane Harvey made land fall, causing unprecedented and catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas. Our thoughts go out to our colleagues, clients, and friends affected by this natural disaster. We are thinking of you during this difficult and trying time.

Pay for Non-Exempt Employees

The General Rule

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an employer is only required to pay non-exempt employees for hours actually worked. In other words, businesses are not required to pay non-exempt employees if they are not working, including times when the employer closes its doors or reduces hours of operation, whether or not forced to do so by inclement weather. Moreover, while some states require some minimum “reporting” or “show up” pay for employees who show up for work and are either turned away at the door or dismissed before the end of their scheduled shifts, Texas is not one of those states.

An important exception to this general rule exists for non-exempt employees who receive fixed salaries for fluctuating hours from week to week. Because these employees must be paid a “fixed” salary, employers must pay these workers their full weekly salary for any week in which any work was performed and pay not dock their pay for days when the office is closed due to inclement weather.

Even if your business is not open during inclement weather days, you always are free to pay employees for that time, and may also permit them to use their paid leave time, if applicable.

Inclement Weather Delays and Traffic

Flooding and severe weather often cause unpredictable traffic delays, and may even result in employees becoming stranded on the road. Employees who perform work while stranded—for example, by taking phone calls or answering e-mails on their way to work—must be compensated for that time even if done away from the office. Similarly, an employee who is stranded in an employer’s vehicle on their way to work and instructed to safeguard the vehicle or other property is generally entitled to pay for time beyond their ordinary home-to-work commute (i.e., once their scheduled shift begins).

With respect to inclement weather, the general and most practical advice is to pay for any extra time spent getting to work during a scheduled shift, particularly when employees are stranded for reasons outside their control. It is likely that the Department of Labor or even a court would find that all of the time the employee was stranded within their regular shift is compensable time. Even where reasonable minds could differ on these questions, since the costs of defending these claims often exceed the underlying payroll costs, it often makes sense to employees for this time in the first place.

Pay for Exempt Employees

Exempt employees under the FLSA must be paid on a “salary basis” and earn a full day’s pay when they work any part of the day, regardless of the quality or quantity of the work performed. Thus, if a business is closed because of inclement weather and an exempt employee is ready, willing, and able to work, she must be paid for that day. On the other hand, if the exempt employee does not work for an entire workweek (for personal reasons or because the business is closed), the exempt employee need not be paid for that time—that is, the employer can “dock” her salary for the full workweek.

If the business is open and an exempt employee elects to stay home to make repairs or volunteer at a local shelter, the employer may “dock” their salary in full day increments (but perhaps consider not doing so to encourage volunteerism and aid in recovery efforts). In these instances, and including situations when exempt employees elect to arrive late or leave early for personal reasons, employers may also deduct accrued leave time in full or partial day increments as long as the employee receives his or her full pay for the week. In the event that the employee does not have any accrued time, an employer may also simply pay him or her for the day or allow the employee to take an advance on accrued paid leave and make it up at a later time. This practice is not allowed for non-exempt employees, who must be paid overtime for all hours worked over 40 in a work week. For more information on the FLSA salary basis rules, visit our prior blog.

Safe Harbor

Remember, improper or inadvertent deductions from pay will not typically result in the loss of exemption status if the employer reimburses the employees for the improper deductions, has a clearly communicated safe harbor policy prohibiting improper deductions, and a complaint mechanism for exempt employees to use if improper deductions are made. For more information on the FLSA safe harbor rule, visit our prior blog.

Telework or Working from Home

Allowing employees to work from home during this time will aid recovery efforts and help families recover faster. Regardless of exemption status, employees who work from home during inclement weather, even if only a few hours per week, must be paid for that time. Thus, employers who will keep their businesses up and running during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey should clearly communicate to employees who is and who is not permitted to work from home, when that work can be done, whether overtime is permitted, and how to record time worked outside of the company’s premises. It is also important to remind employees to record all hours worked, even when the work is done away from the employer’s premises. Employers should be sensitive to the fact that not all employees will be able to work remotely, and therefore should consider alternative arrangements like temporary or shared offices.

On-Call and Waiting Time

Power outages are common during natural disasters, and many employers will require their employees to wait out or work through such power failures. In most cases, any employee who is required to remain at the employer’s premises or close by and therefore unable to use that time for his own benefit (even if not working) must be compensated for that time. For example, employees who are onsite to perform emergency repairs and who are not free to leave the company’s premises must be compensated for time even if they do not ultimately perform any work. Similarly, if an employee is onsite and required to wait through a power outage, the time waiting for the power to resume is typically considered time worked and is therefore compensable.

Volunteer Time for Company Repairs

Employers should generally be cautious about having employees “volunteer” to assist during an emergency, particularly if those duties benefit the company and are regularly performed by employees. Exempt employees who volunteer to help will not be entitled to any additional compensation. But remember that too much time spent on manual tasks or other tasks unrelated to their regular job duties could invalidate their exempt status and allow them to claim overtime compensation. Conversely, non-exempt employees must be paid for all time worked, even if they offer to work and help make repairs for “free,” with one exception: Employers may accept free work from employees of government or non-profit agencies who volunteer out of public-spiritedness to perform work that is not at all similar to their regular duties.

Leaves of Absence After a Natural Disaster

Otherwise eligible employees affected by a natural disaster may elect to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for a serious health condition caused by the disaster. Additionally, employees affected by a natural disaster who must care for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition may also be entitled to leave. This includes job-protected leave to care for a family member who is a current service member with a serious injury or illness. FMLA leave for this purpose is called “military caregiver leave.”

Adding to the difficulty, employers may encounter uncommon FMLA issues during and after severe storms, including absences caused by an employee’s need to care for a family member who requires refrigerated medicine or medical equipment that is not operating properly because of a power outage. What’s more, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employee who is physically or emotionally injured as a result of a disaster may be entitled to leave as a reasonable accommodation, so long as it would not place undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

Employees who are part of an emergency services organization may also have rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Under certain conditions, USERRA provides job-protected leave for U.S. service-members. Although USERRA does require advance notice of military service, there are no strict time limits for notice after a natural disaster as long as it is reasonably “timely.” Employers should be prepared to receive and assist employees giving notice under USERRA and other laws allowing for job-protected leave.

Many counties in Texas have been declared in a state of emergency following Hurricane Harvey. While this does not provide pay or other protections for Texas employees, the Texas Workforce Commission advices that “absences due to closure of the business based on bad weather or other similar disaster or emergency condition should not count toward whatever absence limit a business has” —particularly for nonessential employees. On the other hand, if other employees are able to make it in to work (including workers from similar areas), absences for personal reasons may count toward an absence limit. On balance, however, it is always advisable to discourage the discipline of any nonessential employees who are unable to report to work during a state of emergency.

Weathering the Storm Together

While legal compliance is important, there are other practical ways employers can help workers weather the storm an get back on track. Business owners should consider relaxing the usual telecommuting rules to allow affected employees to work from home as much as possible. To minimize financial hardship, employers should continue to process payroll in a timely manner. Consider providing pay advances, loans, or even advances for paid time off/vacation time to help employees offset unanticipated expenses for repairs and insurance deductibles.

To the extent possible, employers may consider offering employees paid leave for time spent volunteering to assist with disaster relief efforts. Employers can also implement a leave donation/sharing policy to allow employees to donate paid leave to employees who will use it to volunteer in relief services or for those otherwise affected by this terrible disaster.