Better Call Behnken: Local employees claim they’re losing jobs after evacuating for Hurricane Irma

This woman claims she was fired after evacuating during Hurricane Irma.

TAMPA BAY, Fla. (WFLA) — Employees continue to come forward with stories of losing jobs after choosing safety over work during Hurricane Irma.

A Bradenton woman says a social media post about her “Hurri-cation” sent her boss over the edge.

“I said, ‘That was just me trying to make light of a situation that was overly scary,'” April Johnson said. “You know, I wanted to let all of my family in Kansas and Arizona know that we were safe.”

Her boss at 21st Century Healthcare Consultants didn’t see it that way. Management insists Johnson was not fired just for evacuating, but they were not happy with a Facebook post in which Johnson wrote: “Enjoying our Hurrication and sending our love and prayers to everyone still in the path of the storm.”

Johnson evacuated to Texas where her family has a time-share property. She showed text messages to 8 On Your Side that show she was in continual communication with her supervisor.

Her bosses say it was not enough and that she came back to work too late – September 18. She cites a gas shortage, said she was in communication with her supervisor and insists she worked from her laptop computer in Texas.

Johnson is the latest to go public to ask Florida legislators to consider a state law to protect workers and give them guidance during national disasters and evacuation orders.

“I understand it’s a right-to-work state, but there are little loopholes that you can put into place that would cover you in the case of an evacuation, especially when the governor comes and declares this a state of emergency,” Johnson said.

Employees from various fields across the Tampa Bay area – industrial workers, office workers, hospital staff and public employees – have called 8 On Your Side about losing jobs after evacuating.

Some refused to work during the storm. Some were in mandatory evacuation zones and then couldn’t get back quickly after the storm due to gas shortages.

The City of Largo fired four employees for failing to work during the storm. The city classifies those employees as “emergency responders.”

One of those workers is Brian Nutting. He tells 8 On Your Side that he showed up for work but left before employees hunkered down at work. He says there was no work to do during the storm since his job is to clean up tree debris after the storm. He promised his boss he would return after the winds died down, but said his wife needed him at home.

“I got fired for protecting my wife during the storm,” Nutting said, adding that this is the first time he has ever been asked to stay at work during a storm in his 24 years with the city.

He is also angry that the city let him work Tuesday through Friday, and then fired him at the end of the day.

City officials defend the firing, saying all “emergency responders” sign paperwork yearly that states the rules during an emergency situation and that they know they will be fired if they don’t comply.

Susan Sinz, Largo’s director of human resources, said this in an email to 8 On Your Side:

Of course we all want to ensure the safety of our families and come after the event. However, the safety and health of our city is why we are primary responders in emergency events like this and we need to have everyone here in order to take care of the needs of the city and its residents.”

The Largo workers are not alone.

An industrial worker tells 8 On Your Side he was told he could evacuate by his boss, but was later fired because it took days for him to get back to Florida. A social worker evacuated to north Florida, and a gas shortage delayed her return trip. Now her job is in limbo. And a Jacksonville Pizza Hut made national news for posting a note to employees telling them not to miss shifts before evacuating.

The bad news: employers usually win. Florida does not have laws in place to protect workers in cases like a hurricane, even when the governor declares an official state of emergency.

That puts workers in a tough position, said Josh Kersey of Sass Law Firm in Tampa.

“You hate to see it, and unfortunately there are employers, which are completely in their legal right to do so, who will terminate employees who are put in really bad positions, with schools being out and not having power or water,” Kersey said.

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