As Tropical Storm Fay continues to pound Florida this week, I was recently reminded that it’s been 23 years since Connecticut suffered a direct hit from a Hurricane — the infamous Hurricane Gloria

No worries then for Connecticut, right? Wrong. Connecticut has been hit by several tropical storms since then — just like Fay — and Hurricane Bob passed close enough over 15 years ago to cause significant damage in the state.  And the Great Hurricane of 1938 may be one for the history books, but it was historic in proportions and shows it could happen here again.

And if you follow the weather blogs, Connecticut is just due for a hurricane strike; maybe not this year, but soon.

So now is the best time to understand the law and help establish a policy to have in place in case a storm develops.

Here are some common questions; some are similar to snow storms (see my earlier post here), but even in snow, Connecticut seems to function ok.  A hurricane might change that equation.

As an employer, suppose some employees don’t show up for work to prepare for the hurricane, can you fire them? For the most part, yes. Connecticut is an at-will employment state.   Whether you will want to fire them, though is an entirely different question.

Do I need to pay employees who don’t show up for work for the same reason? That will depend on whether the employee is exempt or non-exempt.  Non-exempt (or hourly) workers are typically paid for time worked, so no work, no pay.  But for exempt (salaried) workers, they will need to be paid if they worked during that week, though the employer may insist that the employee be charged vacation time or paid time off. 

Can I force my employees to work during the storm? The legal answer is that for the most part, the answer is yes. But in practice, most employers take a different approach that depends on the type of work that they are doing.  

Some employers who need to maintain operations 24/7 (a hospital, hotel, etc) may want to designate certain employees as "essential".  Others may decide that they can deal with telecommuting employees for a half-day.  But establishing a policy at the outset so employees know what to expect is essential to avoiding problems later on.  Ultimately, setting reasonable expectations (asking employees to call in if late, and having them make up for lost time) may be all that is needed for some.

However, for extremely serious storms (perhaps a Category 3 Hurricane), the Governor has the power to suspend certain laws under Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 28-9.  This is rarely invoked. In non-emergency situations when the Governor says that "non-essential" state workers should stay home, private employers should understand that this applies only to state workers and they are free to set different rules. 

We have closed our business during the storm; do we need to pay employees? The legal answer again depends on whether the employee is an exempt or non-exempt worker.  But if you follow the letter of the law, there are serious ramifications for employee morale.  It will obviously be challenging to some small employers, but paying employees in those times of need may pay dividends later for employee morale as well.

What can I do now? Easy. Set up a storm policy. Many employers will have in place for winter storms, but make sure that it is applicable for all types of storms and sets forth what is and is not expected.  Also consider getting cell phone numbers for employees; in case of a storm, you may be able to send them a text message or call with information, particularly if there are power outages.

Lastly, be sure to seek out legal counsel where appropriate for specific legal questions that may arise in this context.  For instance, there may be contractual obligations by an employer or other laws that may apply to your specific situation.