Am I safe? Are my family members safe? What do I do if I am injured? These are the immediate concerns of most people living through a disaster. For the first few days, these are the questions on an individual’s mind. However, people are quickly forced to think ahead, to think about the future. Is my workplace still open? How will I get to work? Do I still have health insurance?
It is vital that workers understand their rights immediately following a disaster like Hurricane Maria. Here is some basic information to assist employees. Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive list.
You can receive monetary assistance if you are unemployed because of circumstances beyond your control, and if you are not terminated because of misconduct. This includes if your employer is forced to close during a natural disaster. As a general rule, employees must have worked six months in the past year to receive unemployment.
Individuals seeking unemployment must provide their social security number, contact information for employers from the past 18 months, and proof they are unemployed through no fault of their own. Be sure to contact your local social services office for more localized information. Information specific to Puerto Rico can be found here [http://www.trabajo.pr.gov/det_content.asp?cn_id=24].
Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA)
DUA is a program funded by FEMA. DUA is monetary assistance to individuals unemployed as a direct result of a major disaster. DUA is only available to people who are NOT covered by regular unemployment assistance.
DUA is available to people who are self-employed, people injured because of the disaster, people who became the head of a household because their family member died in the disaster, and people otherwise prevented from working because of a disaster. It is ESSENTIAL that the individual be unable to work as a direct result of the disaster. If your car dies a week after a hurricane because it is old, then you cannot get DUA!
DUA is only available for a limited time. Speak to a FEMA worker if you believe you qualify! More in-depth information can be found here [https://www.fema.gov/news-release/2017/10/25/4339/fact-sheet-survivors-may-be-eligible-disaster-unemployment-assistance].
Millions of Americans have health insurance through their employer, and during a natural disaster this coverage can be life-saving. What happens if the employer is closed because of a disaster?
If you are enrolled in your employer’s healthcare plan, then you are still covered by the plan even if you cannot physically get to work. Employers are allowed to cancel their healthcare plans, but the plan is not automatically cancelled because the employer is temporarily closed.
An employer may still require an employee to pay premiums and deductibles. Procedures for making these payment may be found in the Summary Description Plan (SDP). This is a booklet or pamphlet provided by the employer when employees enroll in their plan. This SDP will also have the contact info for the Plan Administrator. Employees should contact the Administer to get updates on their plan.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Many buildings are damaged or destroyed after a natural disaster. What happens if your place of work is unsafe?
OSHA sets certain standards for employers to make sure their employees are safe at work. Employers may not force their employees to work in dangerous condition. This is true even in the wake of a natural disaster! If your employer requires you work in unsafe conditions, then they are violating the law. Please contact your local OSHA office if you are concerned about your working conditions. More information about OSHA in Puerto Rico can be found at https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/stateprogs/puerto_rico.html
These are some of the most basic rights that employees retain even following a natural disaster like the residents of Puerto Rico endured from Hurricane Maria. I hope this post reflecting some of my research performed as a Student Attorney in the #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic provided some knowledge to anyone living through a disaster. Employees must be even more mindful of their rights in times of chaos.