As the flood waters begin to recede, and South Louisiana begins to dry out and recover from the recent flooding, Louisiana employers also face recovery issues, including how to address employee needs. Although there is no rule of thumb that applies to all situations, common sense, consistency, and compassion can go a long way. Flexibility, understanding, and empathy for those that have been affected are key. Some employees, even those who were not inundated with flood waters, were likely still affected because of losses sustained by family and friends. And still other employees likely have had difficulty even getting to work and navigating closed streets.
Impact on Duty To Pay Employees: Pay issues will generally depend on an employee’s exempt status under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”); Louisiana does not have its own minimum wage/maximum hours law. There are always exceptions, but if an employee is not an exempt employee under the FLSA, he or she must only be paid for time actually worked. However, time worked includes both hours worked at the employer’s place of business and any hours worked away from the office. If you let them work from home or remotely from a computer or smartphone, you still must pay them for their actual time worked. Accurately tracking worked hours (especially hours worked remotely) is critical.
Exempt employees must generally be paid their full salary for any week in which the employee performs any work. If your business is open and an employee misses work because he or she cannot get to work due to transportation difficulties, flooding issues, or even states of emergency/travel bans, that is generally considered an “absence for personal reasons,” and the employee’s salary may be docked, but only for full-days’ absences during which the employee performed no actual work. Conversely, if the employer chooses to close the business for any reason for a portion of the workweek, it must pay the exempt employee’s entire salary for that week (assuming the employee performed some work during that week). Remember, an employee who works for even part of a day will trigger the requirement to pay the exempt employee’s full guaranteed salary for that week where the reason for not working the remainder of the week was due to a business closure and not personal reasons.
“Volunteer” Hours: If your business sustained heavy damage, many employees may offer to help rebuild and repair. The FLSA requires you to pay your employees for working time even if they volunteer to donate that time or work for free. Businesses should be very cautious about having employees “volunteer” to assist during an emergency. The best advice is to pay for this time. Unless otherwise prohibited by law, contract or your own company policies, you have the option of paying your non-exempt employees at a lower rate of pay for clean-up/recovery work, but they must be paid at least $7.25 per hour to avoid minimum wage exposure; you also must ensure that you properly calculate their overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours in the workweek, especially if they work at two different rates in the same week.
Leaves of Absence: Employers may provide employees with periods of unpaid leave to address recovery efforts from the recent floods, but many employees will likely feel a financial strain by any extended periods of unpaid leave. Employers may consider allowing employees to take forms of employer-provided paid leave in lieu of unpaid leave. You must also consider whether affected employees are eligible for FMLA leave (e.g., serious health condition of employee or employee’s child, spouse or parent) or even leave as a reasonable accommodation for employees who are physically or emotionally injured as a result of a catastrophe and their impairment qualifies as a disability under the ADA. An employee may not expressly request either form of leave, but employers must be attuned to circumstances and requests that may trigger follow-up with the employee. For example, if an employee’s absence is caused by the employee’s need to care for a family member who requires medical equipment which is not operating due to a power loss, that likely would be protected under the FMLA. In cases where employers provide employees with extended periods of leave, employers must also be cautious regarding the possibility that the leave may inadvertently trigger COBRA notice obligations.
Employee Assistance Professionals: Finally, in situations like this, when a distraught employee comes to an employer with a personal issue, employer-provided employee assistance programs are invaluable. Employers should not try to act as a counselor or mental health professional because an employer could run afoul of the ADA in these situations. It is best to leave these types of counseling, mental health, and other related issues to the trained professionals, and simply direct employees to resources that may be available to provide appropriate help.
These issues just scratch the surface. The key is to be flexible, exercise common sense, and seek legal help early on if needed so that the issues can be addressed moving forward, not repaired looking back.