NorCal Fire Disaster – What Employers Should Know

In light of the recent fires and the devastation in our community, we are reaching out to our clients and friends. We have all been personally impacted in many ways, including Brenda Gilchrist, our Co-Founder, who lost her home to the fire. We want to support you in any way we can and are offering some strategies in response to questions we have received.

Here are some tips and considerations we hope are helpful for you during this difficult time:

Grace and compassion for affected employees
Even employees who have not sustained losses may be emotionally affected by the trauma of recent events. Mistakes may increase, tempers may be shorter. Extra communication and compassion from management can help to mitigate the effects of trauma for employees. For employees who are not able to function effectively, discuss time off or work flexibility options, if available. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, consider bringing a rep onsite to meet with employees. Pulling employees together for company-sponsored meals or other all staff events may help. Restoring a sense of normalcy and community helps people stabilize in an emotional and turbulent time. Other options include paid lunches and in house/onsite massages. MBWA – Managing by Walking Around – is even more important now. Your presence, your willingness to listen without judgement, and your emotional support are some of the most helpful things you can offer.

Managing donations in the workplace
Employers need to be careful about soliciting donations and should consult their own solicitation policies. If employers want to set up in-house donations for employees who lost homes in the fires, we recommend setting up online donation sites and providing a link to employees. Make it clear that participation is 100% voluntary and that all donations/amounts will be anonymous. Whoever administers the sites in-house should keep the donation information confidential. In situations where multiple employees are affected, another option is pooling the donations in a single drive and management allocating to affected employees as fairly as possible.

We have clients who are making very generous donations to employees who have lost their homes and others who simply cannot afford to. Communication and compassion will go a long way where financial contributions are not an option.

Paying employees when facilities are closed or hours reduced
Per CA law, employers are not required to pay non-exempt employees for hours not worked due to circumstances outside of the employer’s control. That said, many of our clients who can afford to do so are paying some or all wages to their hourly workers who did not work or had reduced hours during the first week of fire. Some are also covering some or all wages for even longer.

Employers must pay exempt employees their full weekly salary for any week in which any work is performed. If the business is closed for an entire week, employers do not have to pay exempt employees. The laws around deducting salary from an exempt employee’s salary are complex. We recommend you consult with us or legal counsel before making deductions from exempt employee salary.

Employees may be eligible for state or federal benefits (unemployment, disability or paid family leave) benefits for reduced or suspended hours or to care for themselves or an ill or injured family member. Employees may inquire and/or apply for benefits at the EDD ( or The deadline for filing fire-related unemployment claims is November 16, 2017.

Many employers are not requiring the use of PTO for employees who are taking time off.

Donating vacation time or PTO to another employee
There are tax considerations for this practice that are suspended for major disaster scenarios; certain guidelines still apply. Employees may not claim this donation as a tax deduction.

Employers can add a temporary policy to their employee handbook that allows employees to donate time off (recommend vacation/PTO only), for employees who have to take time off due to loss of home or other impacts from the fires. Tax laws require employees to donate leave into a ‘pool’. Management can allocate as fairly as possible among affected employees. Donated hours may either pay out at the rate of pay for the recipient, or you can set up comparable dollar value plans, e.g., two $30/hrs donated = one $60/hr or four $15/hrs. We recommend:

  • putting this policy in writing
  • limiting donations to a maximum of five days
  • prohibiting donations that would bring the donor’s balance to less than five days
  • no cashing out of donated time
  • only employees who are normally eligible for time off benefits can receive donations
  • closing out this temporary policy after a limited period, e.g. 30 days.
Time off for impacted employees
You may consider granting additional paid or unpaid time off to employees who are impacted if you can afford to do so. Additionally, some of your liability insurance policies may provide temporary wage replacement, which can be applied accordingly. Employees may use CA sick leave to care for themselves or a family member who is ill or injured, by the fires or otherwise. Employers who are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act should be aware that it covers absences for illness or injury due to disasters, or to care for an affected family member. Employees who are temporarily disabled may qualify for ADA accommodations or state disability benefits.

In addition to paid or unpaid time off, consider allowing flexibility to employees work schedules. Many employees may need to tend to their own personal matters or support family and/or friends over the coming weeks. Others may want to volunteer their time to support the community. Allowing flexibility shows employees you are willing to help them and support the community through this difficult time.

Unfortunately, several of our clients had all or portions of their operations destroyed, resulting in the need to eliminate positions and layoff employees. We know this is very hard to do, particularly if you may need those staff at a later date for when the business is operational again. One option is to create a furlough program for staff you operationally need to retain. This option allows employees to stay employed, usually retain health insurance benefits**, and they can apply for temporary unemployment benefits.
If you do not foresee a short-term need to have staff come back to work within the next 1-2 months, a layoff may be the only option. If so, severance offered by employers is not legally required, however, if you can afford to do so, the standard is 1-2 weeks of pay for each year of service up to a maximum of 1-3 months. If you offer severance, we highly recommend tying it to a signed general release. We can provide this document, for a fee, or you can inquire through your legal counsel.
**Your plan documents will determine under what circumstances you may continue benefits, and for how long. Consult with your broker prior to offering to extend benefits for employees who are not working.

Illness & Injury Prevention Plans and Emergency Action Plans
Most CA employers are required to have both plans. More information is available at Cal/OSHA.

Food for Thought
The following thread from the Santa Rosa Firestorm Update Facebook group has some creative ideas to support your employees and the community. Action should be carefully planned out with your HR team or professional consultants.
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We understand the impact of catastrophic events is unpredictable and will continue to unfold for some time. If we can be of assistance, please let us know.


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