As Hurricane Ian wreaks devastation on Florida’s coast, with the possibility of continuing up through Georgia and the Carolinas, here’s one thing no one should have to worry about: Whether they’ll be fired for following a government order to evacuate. This seems like common decency and common sense, but if prior hurricanes are any indication, there will be some employers that still tell people to come in or lose their jobs.
This happened during Hurricane Irma in 2017; over half of 134 respondents to a survey by Central Florida Jobs with Justice, a workers’ rights group, reported they were threatened with discipline or termination if they didn’t come in. The organization already has a new survey posted to learn about worker experiences during Hurricane Ian. At least one employer, Postcardmania, initially pressured its employees to work through Ian; the company later walked that back after being called out by Labor Notes writer and activist Jonah Furman.
Climate change is causing extreme weather all over the country and the planet: wildfires, floods, and yes, monster hurricanes like Ian. We’ll only see more extreme weather in the years ahead, which is why it’s critical to consider their impact on workers of all types—both those whose evacuations might get in the way of work and those tasked with cleaning up afterward. Last December, more than a dozen workers died when tornadoes hit a Kentucky candle factory and an Illinois Amazon warehouse. Workers reported inadequate emergency training, and some said they weren’t allowed to go home early to try to avoid the storm, but there were scant consequences for the employers.
When these hazardous weather events happen, workers should be able to follow evacuation orders and protect themselves and their families without fear of being fired. Employers should be humane, decent, and respectful of human life in these situations. Many already are. But for those who are not, we need better laws and more labor unions to protect workers from being placed in an impossible situation.
What protections do workers have under these circumstances? Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), employers already have a general duty to provide a safe workplace, and workers have a right to refuse to perform work if it is hazardous. Requiring attendance during a hurricane evacuation order likely violates the general duty clause, and firing workers for their absence in such circumstances could be considered unlawful retaliation. The OSH Act also requires employers to establish an emergency action plan; workers could argue that required attendance despite an evacuation order is a failure to have or implement such a plan.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, workers, whether they are unionized or not, have a right to take collective action; if multiple employees together object to mandatory attendance during an evacuation order, their resistance would arguably constitute protected collective action, making any subsequent firing an illegal reprisal
So there are some federal protections. It’s not nothing, although these agencies are severely under-resourced, with powers too limited and fines too small to adequately deter violations. For example, OSHA later issued a hazard alert letter to Amazon after the tornado deaths; a good start, but such letters are not enforceable and don’t impose penalties, although they can be used to extract higher fines in future cases. At least, probably—it’s not clear how a conservative judge in Florida would interpret these workplace rights.
No matter what a boss or Trump-appointed judge or anyone says, workers whose jobs aren’t part of an emergency response should evacuate and stay safe when there is an evacuation order. Jobs are replaceable; human life is not. (This is not legal advice; it’s advice from me, simply a person who cares.) But it would be far better to have a law that explicitly and unambiguously addresses this precise situation, because it should be crystal clear that employers are breaking the law when they pull these stunts.
State and local laws can provide some additional protection—California, for example, has laws that protect workers who have evacuated for wildfires, and Miami-Dade County, in the heart of hurricane country, passed a law in 2018 defining certain kinds of work as essential during an emergency, and prohibiting retaliation against any employee who’s not essential for following county evacuation orders during a declared state of emergency. And laws requiring employers to have just cause, a non-arbitrary, job-related reason, for terminating workers would also help, like those in Montana and New York City (for fast food workers).
Additionally, all of these issues play out differently if workers have a union. In a unionized workplace, employees would generally have a workplace safety and health committee to plan for such events, and the union contract would have terms about what’s supposed to happen in these circumstances. Equally important: union contracts require “just cause” for termination, and within that framework, there’s progressive discipline rather than immediate firing, which also helps protect workers in cases where expectations are unclear. Public opinion about unions is the highest it’s been in decades (71 percent approval), and there’s been a heralded wave of worker organizing. Passing legislation to make it easier for workers to unionize would only help.
Obviously some jobs inherently require working during a hurricane or wildfire, like the state police, hurricane shelter operators, and health care workers in intensive care units. But most work does not fall into that category. In fact, midday on Wednesday, the Sarasota, Florida Mayor even withdrew police officers from streets because of the dangerous hurricane conditions.
There’s been far too much casual devaluing of the preciousness of human life during Covid, and casual devaluing of workers’ lives starting long before that. History clearly shows that we can’t rely on employer goodwill to keep people safe. That could change—earlier this month, Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) introduced the Worker Safety in Climate Disaster Act, which would, among other things, require paid time off when an employee can’t work because of a climate disaster, and prevent punishment for workers who seek shelter or use time off during a disaster.
In the meantime, people in Florida are hunkering down; their neighbors in nearby states may well be next. It’s a moment to batten the hatches, and get someplace safe. For most people facing devastating storms, that someplace safe is most definitely not at work.