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Handling HR issues in wake of the Southern California wildfires

by on
in FMLA Guidelines,HR Management,Human Resources

Now that the smoke has begun to clear after record wildfires swept through Southern California, employers face some smoldering pay and leave questions. What if the fires forced you to close your workplace? Do you have to pay employees who were ready and able to work? When must your organization pay employees who were forced to leave their homes?

The fires may raise other HR issues. Employees who lost their homes or must contend with repairs will probably need more time off. Others may face health issues such as asthma flare-ups or pulmonary problems.

How will you deal with these issues? Much depends on whether your affected employees are exempt or hourly under California’s wage-and-hour laws. Here are some guidelines:

Workplace closed due to fire emergency

Exempt employees: In this case, you should pay exempt employees their full salaries. Docking exempt pay when the workplace is closed can jeopardize an employee’s exempt status—and that of every other employee in the same position.

On the other hand, you don’t have to pay exempt employees if:

  • The workplace remained closed for an entire workweek, and
  • Exempt employees performed no work during that time—e.g., they did not work at home or at another location.

Nonexempt employees: You do not have to pay hourly employees when the workplace is closed—provided you informed employees about the closure ahead of time. According to the rules, if hourly employees reported to work because they did not know you would be closed, you must pay them for either half their usual or scheduled day’s work up to four hours, or two hours at the regular pay rate, whichever is greater.

Advice: This is a good reason to establish an emergency hotline employees can call to hear a recorded message.

However, the law has exceptions, including closing because authorities recommend it. If authorities suggested you close your facility, you probably don’t have to pay employees who showed up.

Workplace open, but employees did not report

You may dock the salaries of exempt employees who did not report to work for personal reasons for a full workday. Hourly employees who don’t come to work aren’t entitled to pay.

Time off for injuries, medical complications

The media reported many cases of inhalation injuries and warned of toxic elements released when homes burned. In particular, those with asthma and other breathing problems were warned against exposure.

Employees who took time off because of complications linked to the wildfires—or who may need to take time off in the future—may be eligible for leave under the federal FMLA or the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). Leave is also available to care for a spouse, child or parent whose health was affected by the wildfires.

Employers should follow the procedures they normally follow for FMLA or CFRA leave, including getting the appropriate medical certifications that the employee (or spouse, parent or child) suffers from a serious health condition.

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