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What Rights Do Employees Have During an Emergency?
May 2, 2010 2:48 PM   Subscribe

What protections do employees have, if any, if they call in to work during a city emergency? What actions can they take against an employer who pressures them to come to work even though the metro authorities are insisting that people not leave their homes?

Here in Nashville, we're getting severe flooding. My boyfriend "Q", who works downtown for a major tourist attraction, wanted to try to go to work even though the news said that it was too dangerous to go out. He said that he needed to at least make an effort before calling in.

We got about a half a mile before the road ahead was completely submerged under several feet of water, and we could see a few cars trapped in the flood. We turned around and made it home, avoiding a few low points in the road.

I turned on the news to see all of the news channels telling us to stay home, that emergency workers, the police, and the mayor were asking everyone to stay off the roads, and that citations would be given to anyone driving on a road that was closed (almost every road to downtown).

Q called his boss to tell her he couldn't get in to work. The boss told him that everyone else had made it in, and he needed to try again. She told him to drive on the interstate to get in. The news showed the interstate, flooded, with people trapped in their cars. She told him to take back roads. I told him that since it was my car I wasn't going to let it be driven in a flood (just so that he could tell her it was out of his hands).

She told him to take the bus. He said he would. I said, "Are you kidding me?" I know she heard me.

So he checked the MTA website, and it said all buses were grounded. Q called his boss again to tell her that he really had no way to get to work. She told him, "Fine. And you can tell your girlfriend I don't appreciate her shitty attitude."

I took the phone and kind of yelled at her, telling her that it was wrong to treat her workers like that and that it was too dangerous to go out. She told me I couldn't talk to her like that, and I said I could, because she wasn't my boss and Q's safety was my business. She hung up on me. I regret that I raised my voice, but I didn't swear or call her names, so I don't think I was unreasonable.

My question is: What rights does Q have in this situation if they try to punish him for not coming to work during a city emergency? He doesn't have a record of missing work for half-baked reasons -- he's missed maybe three days of work in the three years he's worked for them. They never complain about the quality of his work. This isn't a case of an employee being lazy and making excuses. We're not Chicken Littles trying to snag a day off. This* is what was blocking the road from our house.

I want to submit a complaint to his employers about the whole thing. Q is fine with whatever I do -- he said he'd rather that I deal with it since he has to work with these people. He just wants to keep his job. I'm amazed that they show such disregard for their employees and I can't stand the thought of doing nothing about it.

Any advice? And how much did I mess up his case by yelling at his boss?

*Not my photos.
posted by Toothless Willy to Work & Money (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
no sense pushing the buttons of his employer, that probably isn't helping

if travel is prohibited then i think they'd be on shaky ground firing him for that reason, if you guys chose to sue.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 2:53 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does he have a contract or union, or was he employed at will? Most employees are employed on at at-will basis, which means that firing needs no reason or explanation. The exception of course is if you can prove racial or sexual discrimination etc. Unless there was a contract violated the employer can let him go for any old reason they feel like and there is nothing you can do about it.
posted by idiopath at 2:56 PM on May 2, 2010


What rights does Q have in this situation if they try to punish him for not coming to work during a city emergency?

Cross that bridge when you get there (no pun intended). Near as I can tell, Q's boss didn't indicate there would be punishment if he didn't come in.

I want to submit a complaint to his employers about the whole thing

Step away. Nothing good will come of that. See your concern already about "messing up his case by yelling at his boss".

Near as I can tell from what you posted, Boss wanted Q to come in and offered various ways that maybe he could. Q can't. More than likely nothing will come of it once the roads are clear enough for him to return to work. Until something else happens, calm down. I'm sure everyone involved is pretty stressed out by the floods.

If there winds up being no consequences and this whole scenario blows over, you probably owe Q's boss an apology in some form or fashion.
posted by Ufez Jones at 2:59 PM on May 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


Why are you getting involved in a dispute between your boyfriend and his employer? Let him resolve his own problems.
posted by dfriedman at 2:59 PM on May 2, 2010 [25 favorites]


If he is employed at will (most likely), there is no legal protections associated with getting to work. How you get to work is not your employer's concern. Legally, they could insist you walk, swim, or boat to work.

Agreed, it'd be rather unfortunate for him to be disciplined or fired for failing to show up to work during a flood, but there's not a whole lot legally you can do about it. Consider it a wake-up call to get a new job.
posted by saeculorum at 2:59 PM on May 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


And how much did I mess up his case by yelling at his boss?

My guess is, a whole lot. She might forget about an employee not coming in (and might even feel bad about asking people to come in), but she'll never forget the day her worker's girlfriend yelled at her. I'll bet he loses his job.
posted by Houstonian at 3:06 PM on May 2, 2010 [21 favorites]


I know you're keyed up right now, but you're really not helping him right now. If I were his boss, I'd fire him just so I wouldn't have to deal with people screaming at me. And since Tennessee is an "At Will" employment state, as an employer, I'd be perfectly within my rights to do so.

Of course, it's good that he's not often absent from work. Surely he has some sort of time off ability or sick time accrued. If not, then he'll either have to deal with the consequences or find a place that's more able to be accommodating when it comes to odd circumstances like this.
posted by inturnaround at 3:09 PM on May 2, 2010


Not a direct answer to your question so if this gets deleted that's OK with me; perhaps it might be helpful to others reading this. When I was in a similar situation before (massive flooding, but similar things with snowstorms as well) the sheriff's dept. and other agencies that were coordinating emergency management were arranging transportation for essential workers who couldn't get to work (healthcare workers, firefighters, that sort of thing) If my boss told me I had to come in despite being told to stay home and I was unable to do so on my own I would ask them to contact the local emergency management agency and request transportation assistance for an essential worker. That should sort things out pretty quickly in terms of how important it is that you get to work. Echoing Salvatorparadise, though, I would ask politely.
posted by TedW at 3:10 PM on May 2, 2010 [19 favorites]


I don't think I was unreasonable.

It was unprofessional of your boyfriend to let you talk to his boss at all, especially like that. It makes him look like an ass. It was unreasonable for you to speak to her regarding this whatsoever.

He just wants to keep his job.

Then you shouldn't get involved!

I can't stand the thought of doing nothing about it.

Could you stand it if you got your boyfriend fired? Are you willing to disregard his only wish, to keep his job, to satisfy your pique?
posted by grouse at 3:12 PM on May 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, rather than submitting a complaint to his employer, an apology might be more helpful to your boyfriend's job security.
posted by TedW at 3:13 PM on May 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


Why are you getting involved in a dispute between your boyfriend and his employer? Let him resolve his own problems.

That's not what my question is about.

To the rest of you: Thanks for the input. Since they were legally within their rights to try to bully him into coming to work, we're not going to do anything. Unless they discipline him for this.

And I didn't say a word to his boss until she addressed me, telling me she didn't like my "shitty attitude." Professionalism is hardly her priority.
posted by Toothless Willy at 3:27 PM on May 2, 2010


It would be unreasonable for his employer to fire him after he made a good-faith effort to get to work.

It was unreasonable for you to talk to his employer, and your tone surely did more harm than good. It's up to him what to do about the situation. If you want something done about it, please encourage him to do so rather than taking it on yourself. Q is ill-advised to let someone else handle issues with his employer, whether it be his girlfriend or his mother. Offer him support so he has the courage to do it himself.

Good luck.
posted by reeddavid at 3:29 PM on May 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


No, you can't yell at your BF's boss. When you call work to say you can't make it, you just keep saying, I'm sorry, it's just too dangerous. The fact that he tried that hard is amazing.

You took the phone from him and hollered at someone. If a BF did that to me, he'd be my ex-. Boundary and anger issues come to mind. The boss is an idiot, and putting pressure on an employee to get into danger should be reported upwards (by BF). Yes, I think an apology for your intrusion and behavior is in order. Boss should apologize for her rude inappropriate comment, as well, but probably won't.
posted by theora55 at 3:36 PM on May 2, 2010 [10 favorites]


The very idea of insisting people come in to work at a tourist attraction on a day when driving is dangerous/impossible is the most bonkers thing I've heard today. Yeah, because people are all about going to a museum/theme park/etc when it's too flooded to go about your usual business. Yes, this employer sounds unreasonable and a little evil (creating more work for rescue workers is an absolutely awful thing to do in this kind of situation - the good citizen thing is to GET THE HELL OFF THE ROAD and stay out of the way, and make sure you don't encourage anyone else to drive anywhere), but if your boyfriend wants to continue working there, that's his business and he now has to patch up relations with his boss.

I totally understand your outrage and can see myself busting out the same kind of pique if my husband was treated this way by his boss. That being said, you reallllly should have just kept your mouth shut and not gotten involved. I'd say you should write a nice note saying you're sorry you may have raised your voice, the stress of trying to drive your car in the flood had really gotten to you and you definitely respect your boyfriend's commitment to doing a quality job and under ordinary circumstances would do anything you could to help him with that, etc.

I know you're still mad and you don't actually feel sorry and you kind of just want to punch her for being so crazy, and that's fine. It's only human to feel that way. Heck, I feel that way on your behalf. But for his sake, you need to write a note and have him deliver it to his boss with a "Sorry I couldn't make it in during the flood, if there's anything I can help out with to make it up to you let me know".

I LOVE TedW's suggestion. In future, do that. And if he gets fired, do be sure to publicize that this employer retaliated against someone for not coming into work during emergency-level flooding. I'd happily stay away from any business that had so little regard for its workers and its community.
posted by little light-giver at 3:37 PM on May 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


She can probably fire him, probably won't, but he should find a new job nonetheless because she sounds appalling.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:41 PM on May 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pro football linebacker Adalius Thomas was recently released by the Patriots after, among other things, speaking out about being sent home from practice along with three other guys after he arrived late by a few minutes to a team meeting during a snowstorm this past December. On the morning in question, he'd even called in beforehand to say he'd be late; he still got sent home. Ridiculous, right?

But he still got released, and talking to the press the day after the incident in question about how he was "dumbfounded" and couldn't "figure out what [the coach] thinks or knows" was probably a major precipitating factor in that. Long story short: Your boyfriend's employer is wrong, wrong, wrong—but you telling her that is a bad idea.
posted by limeonaire at 3:54 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're right, I shouldn't have yelled. Believe it or not, I'd never done anything like that before, and I'm 31. My own bosses have always told me they appreciate the way I handle conflicts and how I approach them about problems. I haven't yelled during a personal argument since I was a kid. I had been trying to think of a way for him to assertively and respectfully tell them he couldn't come in, no matter what, when I heard her from the phone say that I had a shitty attitude. I'd never heard an employer talk like that, and I lost my temper. Again: very, very rare, really.

As for letting him handle it, he usually asks me for advice. When he has a problem at work or with his family, I coach him on ways to talk to the people without making them mad but while still making his point. I'm used to planning courses of action for him, which he can follow or not. I'm not his mother. But I see I took too much control over this one.

He's not upset about this. I apologized to him, and he said he understood and had wanted to say just what I said. He also wants to complain/take action if he gets in trouble over this.

Oh well. We'll see tomorrow what happens.
posted by Toothless Willy at 4:32 PM on May 2, 2010


Most states have exceptions (pdf) to at-will employment for cases in which the employee refuses to violate the law.

So if it is actually illegal to go to work (you mentioned citations), then his employer may not be able to fire him. But it really only applies if his refusal to violate the law was the sole reason for firing.

And how much did I mess up his case by yelling at his boss?

Probably a lot. It is likely best you don't get involved anymore, and just let your boyfriend deal with things on his own.
posted by chris p at 4:34 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


As for letting him handle it, he usually asks me for advice.
oops. I should have previewed.
posted by chris p at 4:35 PM on May 2, 2010


chris p: "So if it is actually illegal to go to work (you mentioned citations), then his employer may not be able to fire him. But it really only applies if his refusal to violate the law was the sole reason for firing."

The tricky thing here is that with at will employment all they have to say is "we decided to let him go". They literally don't have to cite any reason, and in that case the burden of proof is on him to even establish it had anything to do with missing that day of work. But of course if they mess up and let on that his refusal to break the law had anything to do with it, that may be a way to get some redress.
posted by idiopath at 4:41 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


In some states, terminations or disciplines that violate "public policy" are against the (state) law. A quick google search pulled up a Tennessee attorney's web site discussing several "public policy" type cases (that is, an exception to the general, at-will employment rule) decided by Tennesse state courts.

To the extent that there is the possibility of a "public policy" type exception to the at-will rule (big if, I don't know TN law), insisting that someone travel the public roads during an emergency in which safety officials have urged people to stay home might well fall within such an exception.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:32 PM on May 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


If it's worth it to your BF and he loses his job, he could speak to an employment lawyer about the specifics of such an action in Tennessee under the current conditions and whether or not it would be worth it to complain to the state labor board. A lot of lawyers do the initial consultation free.

Also, unreasonable employers aside, I hope you guys are keeping safe and dry.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:55 PM on May 2, 2010


Next time, he should just say he'll try to come to work, pop a beer, and call into work a few hours later saying he's spent the past few hours trying to get to work, to no avail. And then if his boss suggests a bus, he should say he'll do it, pop another beer, and then call in a few hours after that to say how the bus didn't work out.

People who don't respect your safety don't deserve the truth.
posted by musofire at 6:20 PM on May 2, 2010 [15 favorites]


Given the number of people who die doing shit like trying to cross flooded spots in roads, your boyfriend's boss needs some quality time with a therapist or a first class beating*. When the police, et al tell you to stay off of the roads, listen to them. They're the sorry bastards who will have to try to recover your body.

I am absolutely not a lawyer, but telling someone over whom you have some authority, to do something when the mayor, police and so forth have said, "This is so hazardous that if we even catch you trying it we'll be writing you a ticket" screams reckless endangerment to me. If your boyfriends employer says boo about this I'd definitely talk to a lawyer.


*May is Sicilian heritage month! I called it! You got a problem with that?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:48 PM on May 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Stay out of this situation. It is our boyfriend's job, not yours.

Suggest to your boyfriend that he fine a UNIONIZED job. I will never work in a non-unionized job, no on should.
posted by fifilaru at 11:32 PM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


In a few weeks when this has blown over and you've calmed down, google a few references to "drama triangles".

You appear to have cast Q in the role of victim and his boss in the role of persecutor and you have stepped in, inappropriately, as Q's rescuer. At the moment you're mad and you want to file a complaint against his boss, turning you into the persecutor and her into the victim. But what role does that leave your boyfriend playing?.

And there are other possible outcomes. if Q does end up losing his job because of your intervention or even for other reasons, there is a risk that he will blame you: you will become the "victim" and he the "persecutor". And so it goes.

Maybe this was a one off. Or maybe you might see a recurring pattern in your relationships here. Maybe you often end interactions with shitty feelings, asking yourself "why does this always happen to me?" If so, use this episode as the first step down a different road.
posted by genesta at 12:41 AM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I know that "its not what this question is about", but your boyf's boss will probably not try to fire him for not coming into work on that day.

But the boss can fire him just because he doesn't want to deal with YOUR involvement when he is talking to an employee.

I had been trying to think of a way for him to assertively and respectfully tell them he couldn't come in...

Yeah, again, this is where your boyfriend needs to do his own work and professional communication. He's not your project, he's a worker that needs to handle his own self.

As for letting him handle it, he usually asks me for advice. When he has a problem at work or with his family, I coach him on ways to talk to the people without making them mad but while still making his point. I'm used to planning courses of action for him, which he can follow or not. I'm not his mother. But I see I took too much control over this one.


I think what you're failing to understand is that there is no "too much control". Its binary...control or no control. Why are you taking control in a situation between your boyf and his boss?

He's not upset about this. I apologized to him, and he said he understood and had wanted to say just what I said. He also wants to complain/take action if he gets in trouble over this.


Just because you someone isn't upset doesn't mean you haven't wronged him. Do you really think the boss will make his life easier at work because of your useless and inappropriate interference? He claims he "understood" what?

Seriously, your boyfriend would never have made it to work regardless of what the boss said or what he did. What you did just opened up the possibility that your boyfriend will get fired...and your boyfriend will not be able to do a damn thing about it in the great state of Tennessee.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:08 AM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


And I didn't say a word to his boss until she addressed me, telling me she didn't like my "shitty attitude." Professionalism is hardly her priority.

He shouldn't have told you that (at least not in the heat of the moment) and he shouldn't have handed you the phone. But those are not your questions. Assuming he needs to keep this job, (which is a tragedy in itself) he needs to make his boss right and you wrong. These are the kinds of things we are forced to do for money in this economy.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:28 AM on May 3, 2010


OK, Toothless, no more piling on. BUT. BF should find the employee manual; most municipalities will have one, and (IANAL) it is the definitive source for what employer can/cannot do and what employee must/must not do. Most such manuals will say how time away from work should be handled. I work for a state University, and we get paid for snow days. They should have closed; being open encouraged people to travel on a day when emergency services are overloaded, this is unwise, to say the very least.
posted by theora55 at 10:14 AM on May 3, 2010


BTW, IANAL. still.
posted by theora55 at 10:14 AM on May 3, 2010


Your boyfriend did the right thing. Do not put your life at risk to get to work. A few years ago I couldn't make it to work because of a blizzard. My manager told me the same thing - "everyone else made it in." I told him it wasn't worth risking my life. (Yes, I actually had gone out and tried to drive in.) He fired me a few days later and also told the district manager (whom I complained to) that I said it wasn't worth my time. I said "no, what I said is it wasn't worth my life." He chose to believe my manager. I didn't fight it beyond that because honestly, I don't want to work for someone who wants me to seriously risk my life like that. I can't speak to your boyfriend's boss, but if I had died on my way to (or later home from) work, I really don't think my manager would have cared.

I believe that if the police here are telling people to stay home unless travel is necessary, they can pull you over and ticket you if you're out driving for what is not a very good reason. (At least I've heard anecdotally about that happening on the toll road.)

I once tried to drive through a flooded spot in the road. Note that the road closed signs were out but were laying down on the side of the road and not actually blocking the road. I flooded out my car. I was told by the policeman that he could have given me a ticket for going around the barriers (which I would have fought because like I said, they were not standing up or blocking the road, and no, they hadn't just been knocked down. They were quite clearly just out in case they needed to put them up.) Every car in front of me made it through the water, but my car was low and stalled out. Now, while the tow truck was hauling my car out, another car went around my car and the tow truck and the policeman didn't pursue him and threaten him with a ticket. (Maybe he realized I was right about the barriers not blocking the road.)

So, your boyfriend could have been risking a ticket as well as his life.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:02 PM on May 4, 2010


Update: Q's work has been shut down since Monday because the building itself flooded. There has been barely any communication from them -- Q is relying on their customer website to announce when they've reopened, and then he'll know to go back to work. He's called a few coworkers, but many are unaccounted for and he's just hoping that they're all right.

Meanwhile, my own employer has kept up with daily emails and phonecalls, keeping us all informed of what to do and who is in trouble, and they've started an aid effort for the employees who have lost their homes. Management has been clear that they expect us to put ourselves and our families first and that there will be no discipline for not coming to work if the commute is unsafe.

I feel so lucky, not just for our safety, but for my employer. Q's "treasured landmark" employer, while not as large as mine, still has the resources to show more concern for their employees than they have. Phonecalls don't cost that much.
posted by Toothless Willy at 10:37 AM on May 5, 2010


By the way, I don't mean that I expect employers to morph into the Red Cross or ignore their bottom line during a disaster. I only expect communication as it pertains to what is happening with our jobs, checking that all employees are accounted for, and respecting our safety. It doesn't have to be a law; it just seems sensible to me.
posted by Toothless Willy at 1:38 PM on May 5, 2010


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