Employers Confront Pay Time-Off Issues After Hurricane

By Allen Smith Sep 12, 2005

Numerous employers are helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina get back on their feet by offering paid time off so employees can assist in relief efforts or by continuing to pay displaced workers. But the disaster also raises many complex Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) challenges for HR professionals, legal experts say.

More than 200 Intel employees stepped forward when the company offered them paid leave to help out in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast. The catastrophic situation created by Hurricane Katrina is unprecedented in this nation, Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini said in a statement. Intel and our employees are compelled to help the thousands who have been affected by this tragedy.

Gov. Jodi Rell, R-Conn., announced that eligible state employees who want to work with the American Red Cross in the devastated region may take paid leave for up to 10 days. Connecticut law mandates that state employees who are certified disaster service employees may seek up to 14 days of paid leave in any year to work for the Red Cross in a crisis.

I am authorizing and strongly encouraging commissioners and agency heads to grant requests for leave under this statute to those who qualify, so long as adequate staffing is assured for important and vital government functions, Rell said.

And Union Pacific announced on its company web site that it will provide differential pay and/or benefits to employees called to active service in the army, air force, national guard or as reservists in the U.S. Armed Services for the relief effort.

Salaries continued

Many companies have announced on their web sites that they will pay displaced workers in the region.

Marriott International said it will pay its associates through Sept. 30. We recognize that the days and weeks ahead will be very difficult for all those impacted by Hurricane Katrina, including our more than 2,800 associates in the greater New Orleans area, said J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International.

McDonalds announced it is continuing to pay salaries for displaced staff and restaurant employees. All New Orleans employees of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were placed on paid administrative leave until the office returns to operational status.

Union Pacific will continue to pay workers who have exhausted their paid leave and are unable to work due to Hurricane Katrina for up to one month. On its web site, the company said it will continue to re-evaluate this policy as the full effects of the disaster unfold.

Communication with workers is difficult, as many workers do not have access to computers, and downed phone lines have disrupted Internet connections. We are still trying to locate people, said Kathy Shepard, vice president of corporate communications for Hilton Hotels, who estimated in a Sept. 8 interview that 5,000 of its workers have been displaced. Hilton initially is paying its displaced staff for 30 days and is setting up an emergency disbursement fund for affected staff.

Were making every effort to reach people, including public service announcements on radio and TV stations in Houston, Memphis, Dallas and San Antonio, where most employees have relocated, Shepard said. In addition to posting information on Hiltons web site, the company has a 24-hour call center.

HR has been working around the clock to restore contact with employees. Direct deposits do not help workers in areas where automated teller machines cannot be accessed and the banks are closed. I think were coming along and were optimistic, but pretty darn tired, Shepard remarked. Part of the issue is getting the new addresses of the displaced staff members so payments can be sent by FedEx or UPS, she added.

FMLA challenges

Any semblance of business as usual may be a long time coming in the devastated areas. But even as normal business operations resume, some displaced workers will continue to take time off, paid or unpaid.

HR professionals should be prepared to face the challenge of finding out which displaced employees are taking leave for reasons covered by the FMLA, according to Connie Bertram, a partner with the law firm of Winston & Strawn in Washington, D.C.

The FMLA mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period to eligible employees, but permits covered employers to require employees to use accrued paid time off during the 12 weeks. Employers need to have a clearinghouse to capture situations involving the FMLA, said Bertram, who is a frequent speaker on the FMLA.

In some instances, employers may not have access to records that can help them to determine whether employees have worked the 1,250 hours a year needed for them to be eligible for FMLA leave or to ascertain how much of the 12 weeks of FMLA leave already have been used. Companies that have paid-time-off banks permitting leave for any reason, rather than allotting specific amounts of time off for vacation or illness, may have more flexibility to help their employees in response to the disaster, Bertram told HR News.

Allen Smith, J.D., is senior legal editor for HR News.

For more articles and information related to the disaster, go to SHRMs Hurricane Katrina Resource Page.

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