In California, it seems that there are three seasons: winter, spring, and fire
As the wildfires rage in Northern California, we continue to see the destruction of many homes and communities. Once an immediate crisis has passed, people are left holding a lot of emotions. Survivors have rebuilding to do and are now expected to adapt to a “new normal” both at home and at work. Throw in COVID and things are getting strained for many.
How should an employer handle employee workplace issues, such as time off and requests for leaves of absence in a way that supports their workers and allows them to run their business efficiently?
Various Leaves of Absence Requests
If you have 5 or more employees, eligible employees may take leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) for a serious health condition caused by a 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.
If you have fewer than 5 employees, many employers offer personal leaves of absence to their employees. This would be a good time to review your policies and ensure they are adaptable to the needs of your employees and your business.
In addition to CFRA, employers with 5 or more employees may need to provide additional leave under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). An employee who is physically or emotionally injured, as the 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.
How to Pay Employees
Non-Exempt (Hourly) Employees
Employers are only required to pay non-exempt employees for hours actually worked. In other words, businesses are generally 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 or emergencies. (However, note that employers may be required to pay non-exempt employees while on qualifying leave under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) or California’s Supplemental Paid Sick Leave (SPSL), even when no work is available. This is an exception to the general rule. Read more information on COVID-19.
Additionally, in California, “reporting time pay” must be paid to employees who show up for work, and the employer turns the employee away at the door or dismissed before the end of their scheduled shifts. Reporting time pay requires the employer to pay the employee one half of their scheduled shift, no more than four hours (or actual hours worked), no fewer than two hours. Reporting time pay is also owed to employees who must call in advance to see if they are on the schedule (and then told not to come into work). If work is interrupted by an act of God or other causes not within the employer’s control, reporting time pay requirements are not applicable.
Unusual Remote Work
Often, severe weather, road closures, or other delays can result in an employee being stranded on the road or at home. Remember, any employee who performs work for the business, such as taking phone calls or answering e-mails, must be compensated for that time even if done away from the office.
Pay for Exempt (Salaried) 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. This means that if a business is closed because of inclement weather or other natural disasters and an exempt employee is ready, willing, and able to work, he/she must be paid for that day. If an exempt employee does not work for an entire workweek (for personal reasons or because the business is closed), the exempt employee doesn't need to be paid for that time.
If the business is open and an exempt employee elects to stay home to make repairs or handle personal business, an employer may “dock” their salary in full-day increments. 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.
On-Call and Waiting Time Pay
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 must be compensated for that time. When you “restrict” an employee’s time, they are eligible for compensation.
Why Volunteering is Not a Good Idea
Employers should avoid having non-exempt employees “volunteer” to assist during an emergency, particularly if those duties benefit the company. Exempt employees who volunteer to help will not be entitled to any additional compensation.
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.
Practical Ways to Help Employees Get Back on Track
- Continue to process payroll in a timely manner
- Allow affected employees to work from home if possible
- Be sensitive to the fact that not all employees will be able to work remotely, and consider alternative arrangements like temporary or shared offices
- Allow employees to donate their Paid Time Off or Vacation time to fellow employees
- Be aware of any obligations to your outdoor under CalOSHA’s Worker Protection from Wildfire Smoke regulations
- Contact your benefits provider and/or Employee Assistance Program to determine what other resources are available to your employees