At a press conference on Friday, Florida governor Rick Scott urged the state’s residents to take Hurricane Irma seriously. “You need to go now,” he warned those living in evacuation zones. “This is a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen.” Then he addressed the state’s business owners: “Please, be compassionate with your employees as they prepare for the storm and evacuate,” Scott said. Many didn’t heed his warning.
In the days before the storm made landfall, workers across the state were faced with a terrible choice: evacuate or keep your job. Reddit was teeming with posts from concerned Floridians, many of whom worried they’d lose their jobs if they heeded the governor’s warning. In a Target subreddit, one employee said he’d be penalized for not showing up during the hurricane. “I get the feeling that if the store is open and I can’t get there safely (my tires are wrecked, driving in the rain is kind of risky) I’m going to get another ‘when you don’t show up you make the store and team look bad’ speech,” one person wrote. “My store is not closed and my Manager said he’s not excusing absences,” another person wrote in a Walmart subreddit. “Should I prepare to be fired?” Hotel maintenance workers, physical therapists, retail workers, and other workers across the state wondered the same thing.
Several Floridians I talked to confirmed this dilemma. One, who works at the steak chain Texas Roadhouse, said his manager discouraged the restaurant’s employees from evacuating. “They told us they would hate for us to evacuate and have the storm not be so severe,” he told me on Friday. “We had plans to board up the windows and such but supplies are low and I have to work this weekend. My biggest worry is that the roads flood while I’m at work.” Another, who works at a waterfront restaurant in the Westin Hotel, told me he was expected to work over the weekend as well. “I asked [my boss] ‘What if it’s too bad to go home?’ The response was, ‘We’ll find a place for you here, but no room or bed guarantee. But you’ll have a pillow and blanket.’”
“I don’t get paid enough to do all that when I can and should stay home with my family,” he added. (All the people I spoke with requested anonymity, fearing retribution from their employers.)
This morning, r/legaladvice is full of underpaid FL employees wondering if they have any right to evacuate without getting fired.— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) September 6, 2017
Another person, who works at Lowe’s, told me his manager told the store staff to stay put. Anyone who didn’t show up for a shift because they had evacuated would be treated as absent and could be fired. This person worked every day before the storm hit, helping customers load plywood onto the back of their trucks so they could board up their windows. Ironically, he wasn’t able to board up his own windows despite working at a hardware store. Employees weren’t allowed to set supplies aside for themselves, and the store ran out of plywood before each of his shifts ended.
Texas Roadhouse and Westin did not respond to requests for comment. Lowe’s spokesperson Karen Cobb said that particular store’s actions go against the company’s policy. “Our practice is to allow employees to leave if they would like to evacuate their family and/or themselves,” Cobb told The Outline. “We don’t force them to stay during these situations. We realize they have personal responsibilities.”
Cobb asked me to tell her the location of the store where my source worked — I told her he had asked me not to disclose that information, because he was worried he’d be fired for speaking out. “We don’t operate like that,” Cobb said of Lowe’s.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Florida operates. As the Washington Post reported on Friday, Florida is an at-will employment state, where workers can be fired at any time, for any reason. And companies like Lowe’s, which actively discourage their employees from unionizing, provide few protections for their workers. “You can be fired for a lot of reasons we would find morally reprehensible. People at the bottom of the income ladder are in a pretty tough spot,” Mary Ziegler, an employment law professor at the Florida State University College of Law, told the Post.
The Orlando-based labor advocacy group Central Florida Jobs with Justice is conducting a survey to determine whether employers across the state are letting their staff evacuate and giving them adequate time to prepare for the storm. Denise Diaz, a spokesperson for the group, told The Outline that most respondents said their employers weren’t giving them enough time go get supplies. “It’s clear that most of the workers feel like they are not being prioritized and are really having to choose between not having a job and preparing for the storm,” Diaz said. “We are also hearing about workers saying they’re the first to be called in on Tuesday, when the storm is over,” meaning they can’t evacuate because they won’t be able to get back in time for work.
A Pizza Hut in Jacksonville, for example, told its employees they were free to evacuate but required them to return 72 hours after leaving. In a statement, Pizza Hut said they “absolutely do not have a policy that dictates when team members can leave or return from a disaster, and the manager who posted this letter did not follow guidelines.” But corporate communications don’t always dictate individual store policy. It’s unlikely corporate higher-ups knew individual stores were telling employees they couldn’t evacuate — but it seems that the corporate side of these stores didn’t do enough to dissuade managers from doing this in the first place.
Gov. Scott, who has denied that climate change exists, on Friday said the state would “spare no expense to save every life in this state” after the storm passed. “My biggest worry is that people didn’t evacuate, and they don’t understand the risk of the storm surge,” Scott said on ABC’s This Week. But most people did understand the risk. Floridians left en masse, causing traffic jams on nearly every northbound evacuation route. Some undoubtedly stayed behind out of stubbornness — my friend’s grandmother in Ft. Lauderdale said she was going to hole herself up in a casino — but many stayed behind because they couldn’t leave, not because they didn’t want to. And it’s unlikely that Scott, who has bragged about the state’s low minimum wage and lack of labor regulations, will do anything to protect workers’ rights to flee or prepare for the storm. Hurricane season doesn’t end for another two months. Scott should provide real protections for workers, not empty words, next time a storm threatens the state.