hurricane florence
Credit: NOAA / Twitter

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the southeastern U.S., ReedGroup is keeping our colleagues, their families, and all residents in those impacted states in our thoughts. ReedGroup is committed to serving our clients’ employees with compassion and we wanted to share some reminders and considerations when it comes to disability, leave, and accommodation management during a natural disaster.

New FMLA or ERISA claims: For employees who open FMLA or disability benefit claims, usually an employer sends an eligibility notice along with a Certification of Health Care Provider form to validate the leave necessity. Under the FMLA, the employee has 15 days to return the certification form, and disability plans usually have deadlines as well. However, hurricanes and flooding are considered extenuating circumstances. Thus, employers and administrators must be prepared to extend paperwork deadlines or waive a paperwork requirement altogether, and, if applicable, recertify the leave in 6 months. For ERISA claims, natural disaster-caused delays are likely good reason to extend decision deadlines, if absolutely necessary.

In addition, because mail delivery may be halted and power outages might impact people’s ability to access email or forms on the internet, be prepared to resend eligibility and form notices to those in the Carolinas and other hurricane-impacted areas.

Disability benefits pay: For disability benefits that are scheduled to be paid this and next week, plan administrators should be prepared to stop payment on checks and/or resend them to a different address for employees who need their disability pay and have evacuated or relocated. Encourage plan participants to sign up for direct deposit at this time, if possible.

Reporting a new claim or intermittent time off: The FMLA requires employees to report foreseeable absences and allows employers to enforce attendance policies when it comes to reporting intermittent absences. Disability plans often have deadlines under which a participant must report a disability. But, as mentioned above, Hurricane Florence is likely to create extenuating circumstances where employers and administrators should waive or extend reporting timeliness policies.

Intermittent leave frequency and duration: Natural disasters such as hurricanes can cause extreme stress and exacerbate existing health conditions, necessitating more time off. Employers and administrators should anticipate intermittent absences to increase and exceed a provider’s estimated frequency and duration. Under the FMLA, an employer can only recertify an intermittent leave request if the employee’s FMLA usage significantly exceeds the provider’s estimate. Employers should consider waiving any recertification at this time. If an employee already is approved for intermittent leave for a hard-to-verify condition–such as a nervous disorder, migraines or back pain–and requests time off under that leave, consider taking the employee’s word as to the reason for absence, even if you suspect the employee is trying to use FMLA leave for flood damage or other home repairs. Many providers’ offices are damaged or closed, leaving those that are still open overloaded and handling life-threatening health conditions. It may not be worth trying to verify a few absences resulting from this storm.

National Guard leave: If an employee is a member of the National Guard which has been called up to serve in an affected state, remember that National Guard service under the authority of state law is not protected by USERRA, but states such as South Carolina have laws protecting absences due to National Guard and other military-related service.

Businesses that have temporarily ceased operations: The FMLA regulations address employees’ FMLA usage when employers temporarily cease operations for one or more weeks. If the employer’s activities cease and employees are not expected to report to work for one or more weeks, the days the employer’s activities have ceased do not count against the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement.

Caring for a family member: Employees may take FMLA leave to care for a family member, but only as it relates to the family member’s personal care, such as bathing, transporting them to doctor appointments, or fixing meals. The FMLA generally does not provide leave for home cleaning and maintenance. Therefore, if an employee requests FMLA leave to deal with a parent’s flooded basement or to meet a repair crew at the parent’s house, these would not be covered under the FMLA. Employers can use a company leave or personal leave for such requests.

ADA accommodations and leave due to hurricane-created conditions: Florence’s aftermath may spur legitimate FMLA leave or ADA accommodation requests. The following are all examples in which leave should be granted or accommodations offered:

  • An employee with an existing nervous or stress disorder might have his or her condition exacerbated by the hurricane experience and need time off to recover or an accommodation to adjust to the stress.
  • An employee with a bad back or other physical ailment might need FMLA time or an ADA accommodation because of aggravating the condition while cleaning up after the hurricane.
  • An employee with FMLA leave to care for a parent might need time because the hurricane cut power to the parent’s oxygen tank (requiring him or her to move the parent temporarily) or cut power to the parent’s refrigerator (requiring him or her to bring the parent staples or fresh food) or caused the parent to lose water service (requiring the employee bring the parent bottled water).
  • An employee might have received a new injury during the hurricane or during the clean-up, which qualifies as a serious health condition and justifies time off after the fact.

Hurricanes in recent years have caused tremendous devastation, and unfortunately, Florence is forecasted to do the same. Therefore, a business-as-usual approach to administering leave and accommodations might not be sufficient. Employers should consider reviewing their policies and making appropriate leave administration adjustments that would prevent adding to the burden of those employees affected by Hurricane Florence who need a leave of absence.

For employers for which we administer leaves of absence, accommodations, and disability management, ReedGroup has provided guidance to our Operations teams regarding when it’s appropriate to extend paperwork and decision deadlines, waive documentation requirements, and delay recertification.