In Natural Disaster, Volunteers, Workers’ Compensation

bernard nomberg

by Bernard D. Nomberg, Partner, The Nomberg Law Firm

With the nation recently battered by two huge hurricanes, it’s important to know where you stand at work should you be caught in a storm and how workers’ compensation rates can be impacted by such events.  

In the U.S., there is no such thing as disaster leave. This means that if a disaster is imminent, you can be fired for failing to show up for work. However, you may have a case for working in unsafe conditions during a disaster if you work a non-union private sector job. 

​When the state issues a mandatory evacuation, the tides turn. Hurricane Irma brought mandatory evacuation orders to certain parts of Florida. Other areas were deemed voluntary evacuation. To the contrary, Hurricane Harvey warranted no evacuations over fear of traffic congestion. 

Mandatory evacuations make it illegal for anyone to remain in the area, yet employers can often disregard this fact. Arguments have been made that firing an employee who fails to show up to work in light of mandatory evacuation orders could be whistleblowing. This argument has often failed with mandatory evacuation orders as failing to adhere to the order is not necessarily breaking the law.

​While public policy disfavors punishing an employee for seeking shelter in the time of an emergency, the disaster leave policy still exists. The exception to this is emergency responders. Alabama provides protection for volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians, volunteer deputies, and amateur radio operators. It is unlawful for any employer, public or private, to terminate an employee for missing work time due to their response to an emergency call prior to the time the employee was to report to work, but any time lost, may be charged against the employee’s regular compensation. 

Hurricane Harvey destroyed homes, buildings and apartment complexes, like this one in Texas.  Workers will be busy cleaning up debris left behind by these storms.

Another important mentionable regards rescue and relief workers. Many Alabamians have expressed a desire to reach out to both Houston and Florida to aid in relief efforts. There are safety hazards that accompany relief work in these areas. Unless you are performing duties related to your employment, you are considered a volunteer and will release any liability should an injury or accident occur.

To illustrate, employees of the Red Cross who respond to disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are covered under their employer’s workers’ compensation coverage.  To the contrary, individuals who volunteer to work with the Red Cross are not considered employees and are typically ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits.  See our previous post addressing volunteers and workers’ compensation benefits.

National disasters impact workers’ compensation rates for employers as well. When a disaster strikes, some insurance companies raise their rates in order to recoup some of their losses. This means even if a company is not directly impacted by the disaster, their workers’ compensation rates may be affected. 

We have represented workers injured the result of hurricane cleanup and recovery.  If you have questions concerning this matter or other legal matters, please call Bernard or David Nomberg at (205) 930-6900.  

Bernard D. Nomberg has practiced workers’ compensation law in Alabama for more than 20 years. Bernard has earned an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell’s peer-review rating.  He has been selected a Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers Magazine as well as a Top Rated Attorney by B-Metro Magazine. Bernard is the President of the Alabama State Bar’s Workers’ Compensation Section.

 

Image courtesy of ABC News.

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