The administrative assistant for a New York City fashion house was visiting her mother in Philadelphia when Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast, shutting down Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the New York City subways and power in the Manhattan financial district neighborhood where the woman lived. Yet on Tues., Oct. 30, the day after the storm, her boss started calling her, insisting she come in to work. It was a pressured week for sales and marketing at the firm, and the company needed her. In theory, the woman could have rented a car, driven to Manhattan and tried to find a hotel room. But surviving in New York City on a salary of less than $50,000 a year was already a challenge, and she knew her employer wouldn’t reimburse her for storm-related expenses.
What rights do employees have when a natural disaster or other calamity gets in the way of doing their jobs? In a word, says Anne Golden, a partner at the plaintiff-side employment law firm Outten & Golden in New York City, none, unless they are in a union that has a contract providing that employees can only be fired for “just cause.” Golden says most courts would view a firing of a union worker because she couldn’t overcome storm conditions and come to work as not justified.
But most American workers are not members of unions. Rather they are what’s known as employees at will, which means “you can be fired for doing your job, for not doing your job based on a mistake or because you wore green socks or because you can’t get to work because of a natural disaster or any other reason that isn’t specifically an illegal reason,” says Golden. Illegal reasons are confined to discrimination based on a list of protected categories including race, sex, age or religion. If you get fired because you didn’t come to work after a storm, you would have no legal recourse to preserve your job, says Golden.
That said, are there employers who would be heartless enough to fire employees who can’t get to work because they lost power and are either stranded or homeless? We haven’t been able to find any, but we’d like to know if you’ve encountered such stories.
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One of the considerations, observes Golden, is that it takes time to find and train new employees, so many employers may be making a mistake by threatening and pressuring workers just after a national disaster. It’s certainly not good for morale.
Legal questions aside, what should you do if your boss is hounding you to come back to work after a disaster like Sandy? Unless you face a serious hardship, like many residents of Staten Island, the Rockaways and parts of New Jersey who have lost their homes, it behooves you to make the effort to go into the office or to find a way to work from home. Though your boss won’t likely fire you, you will score points if you can perform your job, in spite of adversity.