Can my boss order me to return to work in a hurricane and flood zone?
UPDATED: October 6, 2017
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Yes, your boss can order you to work in a hurricane or flood zone, so long as the government has not ordered a mandatory evacuation of that area. You have the right to refuse at the potential cost of your job and have to decide whether your job or safety is more important.
Hurricanes and floods have been much in the news the last several years, so an obvious question many have is whether their boss can order them to go to work in a hurricane or flood zone. The answer is: yes-- your employer can, subject to the limitation below, require you to work at the heart of Mother Nature's fury. And if they do order you to go to work, and you do go, if you are harmed, you cannot sue your employer or otherwise hold them liable, forcing you to choose between your job and your safety.
Seems wrong and unfair, not to mention against public policy! Unfortunately, while it may be unfair, it is firmly in keeping with this nation's employment policy: employment at will. "Employment at will" means that all employment is, as the term implies, at the "will" or free choice of both parties, employer and employee. The employer can terminate the employee at any time, for any reason. The employee can quit or resign at any time, for any reason, with no notice. ("Two weeks’ notice" is traditional, but it's only custom. It is not legally required.) While we often tend to focus on the employer's right to terminate, since that gives the employer enormous power over employees, equally important is the employee's right to quit. That means that an employee does not have to put up with offensive, intolerable, unfair, or even dangerous conditions--like having to “man” the employee's post and do his/her job during a state of emergency.
The way the doctrine of employment at will has evolved in our country, an employer has the right to ask the employee to do anything not actually and specifically illegal. The employee's recourse or right is the right to up and quit a job when the employer asks him or her to do something he or she is unwilling to do.
Except when an evacuation is ordered by the government or some area declared off-limits, people have the right to go into the teeth of a storm or brave flood waters. It may be stupid, but stupid is not illegal. For example, every year, you read about some homeowner killed because he or she refused to evacuate when a monster storm was coming, or some swimmer or surfer killed because going into the ocean as storm-driven waves rolled in somehow seemed like a good idea. They were in harm's way because it's legal to go into harm's way.
Similarly, it may be monumentally stupid to go to work in a hurricane or flood zone, but it is legal; and since it is legal, your employer may tell you to do so. If you refuse, they can terminate you for disobeying orders; and because you have the right to say "no" and quit, if you do follow your employer's instructions, you will be considered to have done so voluntarily. Since you will have done so, you cannot hold your employer liable or accountable for what happens to you. So therefore, the law makes you choose: your job, or your safety? Whichever you choose, you bear the consequences: loss of job, or potential injury or worse.
As said above, the employer can order employees to do anything not illegal. So if the government has closed some area or declared an evacuation of it--or ordered no non-emergency travel--then the employer cannot legally order you into danger, and cannot terminate you if you refuse. An employee cannot be penalized for refusing to do what is illegal. But that typically the only protection employees have in this context.