Just about every active member of the United States workforce is susceptible to employment interruption as a result of a natural disaster. Recent headlines have made it difficult to ignore the possibilities. Hurricane Sandy paralyzed the Northeast for weeks on end. Joplin, Missouri was entirely destroyed by a tornado. Farmers are fearing extinction from the drought of 2012-2013. Fishermen in Louisiana and Mississippi barely survived the Gulf spill.

Istanbul, San Francisco and Tokyo all sit on earthquake faults, at risk of being leveled in a matter of seconds.

Let's face it, we have to be mindful of the risks and plan adequately for the worst. This article will focus on the issues relating to work disruption; compensation challenges will not be covered.

Natural Disasters: Small Business Vs. Large Business
Small businesses are more likely to fail in the aftermath of devastation. Unlike their larger competitors, they have limited resources: they operate from a single location, service a single customer base and are limited in capital reserves. Structural damage to buildings, loss of inventory, equipment and vehicles can prove fatal to a small enterprise. Even power outages, telecommunications service interruption and fuel supply disruption can be cause for concern. Population displacement from small towns or tourist attractions can also indirectly contribute to the demise of the local economy.

The effects of natural disasters on larger enterprises can be serious, but they are usually contained. Activities are quickly restored by operating remotely or by using unaffected locations. Layoffs may occur in the devastated areas, however, if facilities are deemed inoperable or if rebuilding is too costly.

Unemployment Assistance
Assistance is available to workers affected by natural disasters. State unemployment coverage may be available to employees who meet the standard eligibility requirements for such benefits. Being laid off as a result of misconduct may disqualify the employee from receiving assistance.

An example of misconduct is failing to report to work without proper notification and good reason.

When the president of the U.S. declares an event to be a natural disaster, he or she is given authorization to provide assistance to victims through the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program (DUA). The DUA is a federal program that offers benefits to out of work employees and self-employed individuals who are not eligible for state unemployment assistance.

Work Hours in the Aftermath of a Disaster
As a general rule, an employee is required to report to work if a business is operational after a natural disaster. It goes without saying that appropriate measures and judgment should be followed to protect the safety of all in times of emergency.

It is important for a worker to maintain constant communication with his or her employer. An individual may not be able to work due to transportation issues, massive personal loss or any other issues relating to the disaster. Leave may be granted, the employer may adjust compensation to reflect lost productivity or expect work to be made up in the future. Failing to report absences may result in employment termination.

Under federal law, a worker can request protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). An employee qualifies for the leave in one of two ways:

  • The individual suffers a physical or mental illness that falls under the definition of "serious health condition" as a result of the natural disaster and is unable to work.
  • The employee is obligated to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious illness as a result of the natural disaster.

The Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) also protects employees who are members of the National Guard, reserves and uniformed services. They are entitled to unpaid leave of absence if they are called into service. Reasonable notice is expected orally or in writing. The employee's health care and benefits are maintained throughout his or her leave of absence. The individual is entitled to reapply for his or her pre-disaster position without fear of losing seniority in the company's hierarchy.

The Bottom Line
Planning for unemployment or leave should be part of any emergency preparedness plan. Assess your risks and consider the potential natural events that can affect your region. Make a plan to address each possibility and its impact on employment. Stay informed and revise plans as new guidelines and laws are enacted. The goal is to be as proactive as possible.

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