Justice

Why Some Florida Workers Are Afraid To Evacuate

September 6th 2017

By:
Kyle Jaeger

As a category 5 hurricane approaches Florida, prompting mandatory evacuations in districts around the coast, some residents have found themselves preoccupied with a different concern: job security.

On Reddit's legal advice forum, users have submitted several questions about employment law during natural disasters. One user who said he recently started a job at an Amazon warehouse in Florida asked simply, "In the event of a hurricane, can I be fired for not showing up to work because I had to evacuate for a few days?"

Reddit

Others have shared stories about relatives refusing to evacuate because they have work, like this Twitter thread:

Freddy Perera, founding attorney of the Perera Law Group, told ATTN: that when it comes to questions about terminations during natural disasters, Florida's at-will employment status puts workers in a difficult spot.

At-will employment means workers can be fired at any time for any reason, as long as that reason is legal. Most states in the U.S. are at-will, though many recognize certain exceptions to the policy when a termination violates state statutes or implied contracts between the employer and employee, for example. Florida is one of four states that do not recognize any common exceptions.

"The question becomes, if you were to evacuate because a disaster is coming your way whether you're protected. The answer to that, I think pretty clearly, is no," Perera said. "You have to fall within a protected category. If it's not based on race, religion, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation, then you didn't engage in what we call 'protected activity.'"

evacuation

That said, there may be some legal leeway for employees who live in zones that are under mandatory evacuation. When a state orders a mandatory evacuation, refusing to leave is, technically, a criminal offense—with penalties varying depending on the state. A 2016 analysis of mandatory evacuation laws from LawNewz determined that Florida residents could possibly be charged with "obstruction for impeding relief efforts by choosing to stay."

If an employer requires workers to come in when they're under mandatory evacuation, there's a case to be made that the employer is asking them to violate state law—which could be unlawful itself, Perera said.

"If there's a mandatory evacuation, I would argue that staying would be in violation of the law, which means, if you're being required to come into work and stay, you're being asked to violate the law, which would fall into, for example, the Florida Whistleblower Act," he said. "You're protected for refusing to participate in something that's unlawful."

evaucation

Of course, if an employer is located in a mandatory evacuation zone, it's unlikely they would take the risk of keeping the doors open, potentially breaking the law in the process. Perhaps more likely is a situation where the employer is outside of a mandatory evacuation zone and has decided to stay open, while the worker lives in a mandatory evacuation zone.

Stuart M. Ratzan, founding member of the Ratzan Law Group, told ATTN: that "arguably, you could bring a case" that forcing an employee to violate a mandatory evacuation ordinance is illegal under a state labor regulations statute. That statute holds that workers can't be fired because they "[o]bjected to, or refused to participate in, any activity, policy, or practice of the employer which is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation."

However, without an explicit rule prohibiting employers from firing workers who evacuate under a mandatory evacuation order, it'd be a tough case that doesn't appear to have precedent, Ratzan said.

In any case, the fact remains that at-will employment can be a precarious policy for workers—especially during natural disasters.