California Wildfires: What Employers Need to Know

During natural disasters, employers must remember key obligations.
During natural disasters, employers must remember key obligations.

More than a dozen wildfires are raging up and down California, forcing evacuations and bringing tragedy and loss. The monstrous Carr fire in Shasta County has taken several lives, destroyed hundreds of residences and burned nearly 99,000 acres — and its currently only 20 percent contained.

During this trying time, the California Chamber of Commerce often receives questions from the employer community about how to help their employees, and employers must remember some key obligations.

Here are a few things you should know about paying employees, leaves of absences, workplace safety and planning ahead for emergencies.

Paying Employees

Even in an emergency, employers must be mindful of obligations under state employment laws and consider pay issues for exempt and nonexempt employees related to office closures.

Employers must pay exempt employees a full weekly salary for any week in which any work is performed. If the business is closed for the whole week, however, employers don’t need to pay exempt employees.

In emergencies, special pay rules apply for nonexempt employees.

If your business shuts down for any of the following reasons, you must pay nonexempt employees only for the hours they worked prior to being sent home:

  • Operations can’t start or continue due to threats to you or property, or when recommended by civil authority;
  • Public utilities such as water, gas, electricity or sewer fail; or
  • Work is interrupted by an “Act of God” or other causes not within the employer’s control.

However, if you shut down your business at your discretion (and not for one of the above reasons), reporting time pay may be owed. When a nonexempt employee shows up for work as scheduled and is not put to work or is given less than half of his/her scheduled hours, the employee would be eligible for reporting time pay: pay for one-half of the scheduled shift, but no less than two hours and no more than four hours.

Of course, employers are always free to pay employees or let them use vacation or other personal time. Many employers may choose to provide some paid time during emergency situations. Just remember to be consistent!

EDD Resources for Disaster Victims and Employers

The California Employment Development Department (EDD) provides a variety of disaster-related services to individuals and businesses affected by disasters in California, including assistance filing claims for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and extensions of time for filing and paying payroll taxes.

Generally, once the Governor has issued an emergency proclamation for a specific disaster area, the one-week waiting period for UI benefits is waived, and individuals can begin receiving partial wage replacement benefits for the first week they are unemployed due to the disaster. The EDD maintains a current list of state declared disasters where the waiting period has been waived.

In addition, as with the wildfires last year, a Presidential Disaster Declaration makes federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) benefits available. DUA provides temporary unemployment benefits to people whose jobs or work hours are directly impacted by emergencies. The EDD will provide updates on its website as DUA benefits become available.

Employers directly affected by a disaster may request extensions of time from the EDD to file state payroll reports and/or deposit payroll taxes — some employer extensions have already been granted. The IRS also may provide help during disasters.

Employers and affected workers should stay abreast of recent developments by visiting

Leaves of Absence for Emergency Personnel

Some of your employees may serve as volunteers for local fire departments or other emergency response entities. All employers must provide leaves of absence for employees who are required to perform emergency duty. Employers are not required to compensate the employee during this time off.

Leave for Health Issues

Employees may be entitled to time off to deal with health issues that occur as a result of the disaster.

For instance, employees may use their California mandatory paid sick leave for the care or treatment of a health condition for themselves or a family member, as defined by the law.

They also may be eligible for time off for family or medical leave for themselves or to care for family members with any serious health conditions under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). The FMLA and the CFRA cover employers with 50 or more employees and provide a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period.

Employers may have obligations to reasonably accommodate an employee under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the state Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Should an employee suffer a physical or mental injury because of a natural disaster, they may be entitled to protections under these laws.

In some situations, State Disability Insurance (SDI) partial wage replacement benefits may be available for individuals injured by the disaster (non-work related injury). Similarly, Paid Family Leave (PFL) partial wage replacement benefits may be available for workers who take time off to care for a covered family member injured in the disaster. The EDD can provide support services for employers and employees with these determinations.

School or Childcare Leave

Employers with 25 or more employees working at the same location may need to provide unpaid time off to employees whose children’s school or child care closed due to a natural disaster, such as a fire, earthquake or flood. For emergency situations, the time must not exceed 40 hours per year.

Keeping Workers Safe and Cal/OSHA Guidance

Wildfires pose health hazards, Smoke can contain chemicals and fine particles that harm health. And other hazards, such as electrical hazards, unstable structures, flammable gasses, ash, soot and dust are rampant.

As an employer, you have an obligation to create and maintain a safe workplace for your employees. Cal/OSHA advises employers to take special precautions to protect workers from hazards related to fires and smoke. Cal/OSHA provided guidance on how to keep workers safe in heavy smoke conditions and during fire clean-up.

Planning Ahead

The single, most important thing employers can do is create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) and communicate that plan to employees. Employers should inform employees that the plan exists and what steps it outlines. All California employers are required to have an EAP designating the actions that must be taken to protect employees from fire and other emergencies. California employers must also have a Fire Prevention Plan (FPP) that details the fire hazards your employees may face and how to handle a fire should the situation arise.

When employees are initially assigned to a job or transferred to a new position, the employer should review parts of the EAP and FPP employees must know so they can protect themselves in the event of an emergency. Employers should retrain employees if they change the EAP or FPP and should periodically conduct emergency training and drills.

When considering emergency situations, employers should plan how they will handle and communicate office closings and determine who will make the final decision on whether or not to close. Also, determine if alternative workplaces are available, whether certain employees can work from home, or whether to shut down all work during the emergency.

Gail Cecchettini Whaley, CalChamber Senior Employment Law Counsel

CalChamber members can find more information on Emergency Action Plans and Fire Prevention Plans on HRCalifornia. Cal/OSHA offers resources as well. Not a member? See how CalChamber can help you.

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