Some Workers Risk Being Fired If They Evacuate For Hurricane Irma

NAPLES, Fla. — During emergencies, such as when a Category 5 hurricane is bearing down on South Florida, Naples government considers all of its employees as essential personnel.

In addition to police and firefighters, officials from all of the city’s departments — including utilities, streets, building, finance and purchasing — are asked to keep City Hall running, even as the rest of Naples' residents are taking shelter.

For City Manager Bill Moss, that’s a necessary part of government.

“Our responsibility is to protect life and property, to prepare for this storm, and to be ready to begin post-recovery operations immediately after passage of the storm,” Moss said. “To do so, we need employees, equipment and sufficient supplies.”

At least one Naples employee doesn’t share Moss’ view.

Moss said a new hire in the Naples community services department walked off the job Wednesday after learning about emergency responsibilities for Hurricane Irma, which could make landfall in Florida this weekend. That employee will be fired, Moss said.

Moss said all of the city’s new hires are informed they might be required to work during hurricanes. The city provides emergency shelter for its employees at government buildings or other lodging, such as local hotels, Moss said.

Naples officials also planned to set up a day camp for children of the city’s employees on Thursday and Friday.

Moss said he has a right to fire any employee who refuses to work during emergencies.

In Florida, there is no blanket law protecting fleeing employees from dismissal for job abandonment, said Ben Yormak, a Bonita Springs employment lawyer.

“Florida just doesn’t have a specific law that says if there’s a hurricane, you’ve got to let people go,” Yormak said.

Yormak said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s laws could be an employee’s best source of protection. Most employees cannot be retaliated against for refusing to go into an unsafe workplace, he said, though some occupations, such as first responders, are inherently dangerous.

“A firefighter can’t say, 'I’m not showing up to a brush fire because it’s dangerous,'” Yormak said.

Some employees — first responders, emergency room doctors, utility workers — are essential to the public and likely have few opportunities to leave. Government and nonprofit employees also likely have fewer protections, Yormak said.

Workers might have a good legal argument for leaving if they’re evacuating from a community where there is a declared state of emergency, a hurricane watch or a mandatory evacuation, Yormak said.

“If you’re in a hurricane warning and a mandatory evacuation, I think that definitely changes the game,” he said.

Bradley Rothman, a Naples employment lawyer, said people ultimately have to put safety first.

“It would seem pretty tone deaf to fire someone for protecting themselves or their family,” he said. “You have to balance what’s best for you.”

Some Naples employees may not be required to work during Irma. Naples supervisors are preparing a shortlist of employees from their departments who must work during the storm, providing for exceptions.

However, Fire Chief Pete DiMaria said workers throughout the city can help in the emergency effort.

Employees of the Naples building department can help tour the city after a storm to help assess damage. Maintenance workers can work as clearance crews to remove debris. And purchasing officials will be asked to procure food, water and other equipment.

“Everybody is in preparedness mode,” DiMaria said.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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