Natural disasters like Hurricane Irma raise a host of issues for employers: How do you pay your employees during suspended operations? Whether and to what extent should health benefits and other benefits be offered?

The aftermath of the hurricane also will raise questions about an employer’s obligation to provide a leave of absence to employees under laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.

It’s worth pointing out a few general points about FMLA to consider as we’re confronted with natural disasters like Hurricane Irma:

· Keep in mind that the FMLA does not, in itself, require employers to give employees time off to attend to personal matters arising out of a natural disaster, such as cleaning a flood-damaged basement, salvaging belongings, or searching for missing relatives. Case in point: poor Joe Lane, whose FMLA lawsuit was dismissed after he sought FMLA leave, in part, to clean up his mom’s flooded basement because her health conditions precluded her from doing so.
· However, an employee would qualify for FMLA leave when, as a result of a natural disaster, the employee suffers a physical or mental illness or injury that meets the definition of a “serious health condition” and renders them unable to perform their job. It also would apply if the employee is required to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition who is affected by the natural disaster.

Debris sits in a shopping center after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, on Aug. 26, 2017.
Debris sits in a shopping center after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, on Aug. 26, 2017.

Some examples might include the following: 1) as a result of the natural disaster, an employee’s chronic condition (such as stress, anxiety or soaring blood pressure) flares up, rendering them unable to perform their job. Where the medical certification supports the need for leave as a result of the natural disaster, FMLA leave is in play; or 2) an employee is required to care for a family member with a serious health condition for a reason connected with the natural disaster. Take, for instance, an employee’s parent who suffers from diabetes. If the event took out power to the parent’s home, the employee may need to help administer the parent’s medication, which must be refrigerated. Similarly, the employee may need to assist a family member when his/her medical equipment is not operating because of a power outage.

See also: Handling Hurricane Harvey: An employers’ checklist

· What if an employee was already on FMLA leave when the hurricane hit and your business now is shut down for a period of time? Here, the FMLA regulations are clear: If your business activity has temporarily ceased and employees generally are not expected to report for work for one or more weeks, these days do not count against the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement.
· Finally, do you have to pay your employee on FMLA leave while your workplace is closed down? In short, you treat them the same way you would treat another employee on non-FMLA leave. This issue is governed by 29 C.F.R. § 825.209(h), which states: “An employee’s entitlement to benefits other than group health benefits during a period of FMLA leave (e.g. holiday pay) is to be determined by the employer’s established policy for providing such benefits when the employee is on other forms of leave (paid or unpaid, as appropriate).”

Put in simple terms, employers should look to treat the leave in the same manner you treat other forms of non-FMLA leave. If FMLA is being taken in conjunction with paid leave, look to the manner in which you treat employees on paid leave.

Where an employee is requesting leave as a result of the natural disaster, employers should obtain as much information as possible from the employee to determine whether the absence qualifies as protected leave. Where there is doubt, employers should provide the requisite FMLA paperwork and allow the employee to provide the necessary information to support FMLA leave.

Also, employers should ensure that medical certification is sufficient to cover the absence at issue. Where more information is required, employers must follow up with an employee to obtain the information necessary to designate the absence as FMLA leave. Moreover, when an employer has reason to doubt the reasons for FMLA leave, they have the right to seek a second opinion to ensure FMLA leave is appropriate.

This article originally appeared on Franczek Radelet’s website.

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Jeff Nowak

Jeff Nowak

Jeff Nowak is co-chair of the labor and employment practice at Franczek Radelet, where he represents employers in all aspects of employment law. He is a nationally-recognized leader in the FMLA and ADA.