Live 5 Investigates: Working through the storm

Live 5 Investigates: Working through the storm

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Live 5 News is getting emails and phone calls from people who are concerned they are being required to work, even as Hurricane Matthew approaches the U.S. east coast.

Many viewers asked Investigative Reporter Carter Coyle: Can they be required to work even during a state of emergency?

The short answer: yes. But experts have advice to help both employees and employers make those decisions.
"South Carolina is what you call an employment-at-will state," explained Joseph Seiner, Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

"What that means is an employer can fire you for any reason at all whether that's a good reason or a bad reason. So really there are no official protections for employees, even in this extreme weather situation."
He said employers should be cautious about terminating someone or taking some sort of action against an employee in these particular situations because there might be some sort of public policy or local protections in place.

"Consider other issues like employee morale, too. An employer should be cautious of taking any kind of action that's too extreme given the importance of getting people out at this critical juncture."
Professor Seiner advises employees to consider the situation holistically.

"What is the best decision for you and your family? For most people, the 100 million Americans out there who are employment-at-will, you have no guarantees in your job regardless of what that reason is. So you really have to take a step back and say for safety reasons, I have to take a chance here and hopefully my employer will understand. Any reasonable employer in the circumstances would."
Professor Seiner makes the following suggestions to employees:

  • Consult your employment manuals or local governmental policies to see if there are additional protections on the books to allow you to leave under certain emergency circumstances.
  • For state or city employees, you may be entitled to extra protections under the Governor if she issues a state of emergency.
  • Talk to your human resources personnel about the possibility of working remotely or getting time off to protect your family in state of emergency.

Seiner said he always tells employers to look at extreme weather holistically as well.

"Do you really need this individual to come in at this time? Is there really going to be a lot of business given the weather? What type of employment
morale are you building if you send a message that even when there is extreme weather conditions, you absolutely have to come into work?  Could he or she work remotely and still be productive, yet be in a different environment that is much, much safer?"
The short legal answer, he explains, is generally- yes, an employer can fire you in South Carolina, as long as it's not for discrimination. But from a practical standpoint, the majority of employers play it on the safe side, he believes.
There are federal and state regulations that require employers to have safe working conditions.

So for example, after the storm, employers must maintain safe working conditions in terms of food preparation or providing sanitary restroom facilities.

"That workplace has to be a safe environment and one that complies with Allstate and federal regulations," added Seiner.

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