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Navigating the Labor and Employment Law Implications of Hurricanes and Natural Disasters in Texas

It has almost been a year since Hurricane Harvey devastated much of Houston and Southeast Texas, and hurricane season officially began on June 1. If you haven’t brushed up on how a natural disaster could impact your business, particularly with respect to employment and labor laws, now is the time to do so.

Here are a few things to consider to protect your business from undue liability:

  1. Compensation Issues. If you are forced or choose to close your workplace in the aftermath of a disaster, you may question whether you are legally required to pay your employees for the time the business is closed. Some employees are exempt from being paid while a business is closed and others are not. This depends on many factors, including the status of the employee under federal wage and hour law, whether the employee performed work while your business was closed, as well as their ability to leave their homes due to flooding or other conditions.
  2. Paychecks and Work Records. What happens if your computer systems are down or you are otherwise delayed in delivering paychecks? Will you be able to remain in compliance with Texas payday law or the laws applicable to your state? In order to do so, it is critical to get paychecks to your employees as soon as possible. If that is not within your power, be sure to communicate as best and often as you can with your staff regarding their pay, and document all such communications. Finally, be sure to keep detailed records of any work performed by employees from home.
  3. Unemployment Benefits and Disaster Unemployment Assistance. If you close your workplace for a time in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster, or if you are forced to lay off a portion of your workforce, you may have employees claim unemployment benefits. Whether or not the employee is entitled to such benefits depends on the circumstances and it is possible for employers to receive protection from a chargeback of unemployment benefits.
  4. Absenteeism Due to Safety Precautions. If employees are late or unable to come to work due to disaster-related factors outside their control, such as evacuation traffic or fuel shortages, it is inadvisable to take adverse action against them. If roads are closed or authorities are recommending against travel, you will have the burden of proving your employees actually could have come to work despite the adverse conditions. This is no easy task. Be sure to contact one of us before taking any adverse employment action due to tardiness or absenteeism during a natural disaster.
  5. Leaves of Absence and Reasonable Accommodations. Bear in mind that employees may be entitled to use leave time or require reasonable accommodations in order to deal with the aftermath of a disaster. We can help your business sort out what your obligations are and what constitutes a reasonable accommodation so that your business is not exposed to liability in such cases.

This is just a start, of course. The myriad of legal entanglements stemming from a natural disasters are diverse and complex. Hurricane Harvey was called a once-in-a-generation storm, but it won’t be the last disaster to hit the Houston area, and it is important to be prepared to respond. Your business needs an experienced law firm with integrity to ensure that the next natural disaster your business faces isn’t followed by a legal disaster.

The attorneys of Stibbs & Co. have assisted business clients across the Houston area and the world deal with the legal implications of natural disasters since 1981. We’ve learned much in that time, and we are prepared to help businesses find the answers to their tough legal questions in the aftermath of disaster. As always, it is better to be prepared to answer these questions before disaster strikes than after the fact. That is why we recommend you contact us today to get started with your labor and employment-related disaster planning.

Authors: Courtney Sheaffer and Haley Paul