A natural disaster can strike at any time, and unless authorities give specific instructions to the state's residents, it's hard to determine what is permitted during a state of emergency and what is not permitted. An understanding of Pennsylvania labor laws during a state of emergency can be especially helpful for both public and privates sector workers, as well as the general public. Labor laws during a state of emergency distinguish essential from non-essential occupations and services.
State Governor or the President Makes the Declaration
The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) says many state laws give the governor, the chief executive of a state, the power to declare a state of emergency, whether it's a natural disaster or a health-related epidemic. Alternatively, a state governor can request that the president of the United States declares a state of emergency for an affected area, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
State of Emergency Instructions
The declaration typically will give private citizens instructions on what types of services will be available, as well as the services that are suspended. For example, a state governor might tell residents that a stretch of highway is closed during an epic snowstorm. This could mean that motorists who travel that highway shouldn't expect the road to be cleared, and maybe not even stranded-motorist assistance will be available on a highway that is closed to traffic. Simply knowing which roads to travel, however, doesn't indicate who should or shouldn't work during a state of emergency. That's why the state of emergency labor laws exist.
Protection for Pennsylvania Employees
Employment in Pennsylvania is at-will, which means the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without reason or notice. Provided an employer doesn't fire a worker for discriminatory reasons or violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, an employee could be escorted out the door without knowing the reason for being fired. But during a state of emergency, the Pennsylvania Employee's Failure to Report to Work During a State of Emergency Law, 43 P.S. Section 148, employers are prohibited from taking any adverse employment action against an employee who refuses to come to work because of road closures in the employee's county of residence or road closures in the county of the employer's location. While this law means an employer cannot discipline or fire an employee who doesn't show up because the roads are closed, the law doesn't require an employer to pay employees who fail to report to work. This rule only applies to workers in non-essential occupations, because like many rules, there is an exception to this one.
Workers in Essential Occupations Must Report to Work
The public can reasonably expect that employees in essential occupations will be on duty during a state of emergency – many of them are hired as first responders and providers of critical services when the rest of the population desperately needs them. For example, in Pennsylvania, the law that protects employees who don't report to work does not apply to emergency vehicle drivers, police officers, firefighters, health care workers, employees who work for public utility companies, state highway agencies, news stations and even employees who deliver milk and oil.