Anyone who has lived through a rough hurricane season in Texas understands the disruption that an emergency evacuation creates. For example, when Hurricane Rita set her sights on the Beaumont and Houston area in 2005, more than 2.5 million Texans headed inland.
Such evacuations and subsequent returns cause real hardships for employers. But employees who evacuated their homes and jobs are protected from discriminatory employment actions due to the Texas law on Employment Discrimination for Participating in Emergency Evacuation. Part of the Texas Labor Code, the law applies to every employer in Texas that has at least one employee. The only exceptions are for certain types of employees, mainly:
- Emergency services personnel whose employers take steps to provide them with emergency shelter during the emergency.
- Employees who will be needed to restore vital services once the disaster is over.
The law makes it illegal for employers to terminate or in any manner discriminate against employees who leave the place of employment to participate in a general public evacuation ordered under an emergency evacuation order. Employers who fire or otherwise punish an employee who evacuates is liable for any loss of wages and any loss of employer-provided benefits. The employee is also entitled to his or her job back, or an equivalent job.
What kinds of disasters does the law cover? And what types of evacuations are included? According to the statute, disasters covered include the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, loss of life or property that results from a natural or man-made cause, including:
- Fires, volcanic activity or earthquakes.
- Floods, wind, storms or wave actions.
- Oil spills, energy emergencies, explosions or other water contamination.
- Epidemics, air contamination, blight, drought or infestations.
- Riots or hostile military or paramilitary actions.
- Any other public calamity requiring emergency action.
The evacuation order can come from either the governor’s office or any political subdivision.
Texas employers would do well to have an emergency plan in place because the law protects employees who heed even voluntary evacuation recommendations. After all, hurricane seasons will spawn strong storms in the years to come. Add to that the possibility of epidemics such as influenza or SARS, and the picture becomes clear. Remember, too, that to require crucial employees to stay, your organization would have to show it can handle their emergency shelter and food needs.
Excerpted from Texas' 10 Most Critical Employment Laws, a special bonus report available to subscribers of HR Specialist: Texas Employment Law.