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Natural Disasters And The At-Will Rule: Do You Have To Show Up?

As the east coast continues to clean up, many employees in California and the rest of the nation are no doubt considering how they would have reacted to a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Sandy. One big question is whether an employer could fire workers for deciding to stay home in the face of dangerous conditions or a lack of transportation.

While employers in New Jersey, New York, and other Sandy-affected areas had some advance warning of the storm and could make advance plans, that might not be the case for a large west coast disaster. For example, a massive earthquake could strike the region overnight, crippling communication systems and transportation infrastructure. Employees could wake up with no information from their employers about whether they should try to make it to work as usual.

In the case of an unexpected natural disaster like this, would a California employee have a wrongful termination claim after being fired for staying home? The short answer is probably not – the employer would probably be allowed to do this.

America follows a well-established principle called the “at-will rule.” Under this rule, all employment is completely at-will by default. This means that either the employer or the employee can end the relationship at any time, for any reason. There are, of course, big exceptions to this rule to accomplish other goals that Americans consider important. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee based solely on race, gender, age, religion, or some other limited characteristics.

But the general rule is still that all employment is at will. In our hypothetical massive overnight earthquake, an employer could probably lawfully fire an employee for not showing up to complete a scheduled shift.

Source: U-T San Diego, “Do you have to report to work in a natural disaster?” Jonathan Horn, Oct. 31, 2012

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