What to Do if You Lose Your Job Because of a Natural Disaster

Texas Gulf Coast in Hurricane Harvey
What do you do if you can’t work? | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Damage estimates and death tolls typically litter the headlines after a natural disaster. But one thing that can be lost in the discussion is what happens to those who are left jobless. If a hurricane, such as Irma or Harvey, wrecks your town are you supposed to go to work? Can you even get to work? And if you can get there will your company even be able to open? These are things that people on the ground have to contend with long after the news cameras have left the scene.
For those stuck in a disaster’s wake, the cleanup is just the beginning. And if they find themselves unable to go back to work that makes things much more difficult.
Unfortunately, the people who have the most to lose are also those who have little to begin with. If your car is swept away or destroyed by a flood or tornado, what if you can’t make it to work? Your employer has no obligation to help you figure out your transportation needs. Does it mean you’ll lose your job if you have no other means of getting to work? In some cases, yes. It’s not simply a matter of having your personal property destroyed or going without power. Some communities are totally destroyed — in a physical and economic sense — and never really recover.
Just look at parts of New Orleans, for example. In some areas of the city, Hurricane Katrina inflicted damage that was permanent. Many people moved away, and many businesses had to close permanently.
So what happens and what should you do if you find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster? Obviously, you want to ensure safety for yourself and your family first. But after the damage is done, there’s going to be a chance that you can’t return to your normal routine — a chance that going to work again is simply not an option.
Luckily, we have a plan for that. And there are programs designed to assist those caught in such situations.

Losing your job to a natural disaster

Many people are displaced after natural disasters. | Karl Spencer/iStock/Getty Images
  • More than 500,000 jobs evaporated after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

As discussed, economic damage and loss of life typically lead the headlines following a big disaster. But jobs are also lost for a variety of reasons. People are displaced, or buildings are lost or condemned. The fact is many workers don’t have the option of simply going back to work after a storm has passed. Even if the employees themselves weren’t affected, business owners, equipment, and assets might have been. You can’t really show up to work if your building is submerged, lacking adequate water or power, or inaccessible due to road closures.
What about as the disaster is unfolding or in the immediate aftermath? Can you be fired for failing to show up to work?

Can an employer force you to work in unsafe conditions?

Florida prepares for Hurricane Irma
Employers have threatened employees who were trying to escape the storm. | Brian Blanco/Getty Images
  • Pizza Hut recently came under fire for threatening employees who were evacuating before Hurricane Irma hit Florida.

This is a tricky question. If you know a big disaster is looming — say, there’s a tornado warning, a big blizzard is about to hit, or a hurricane is bearing down — can an employer fire you for failing to show up? The answer, unfortunately, is yes in most cases. This was a question that came up recently as Hurricane Irma hit Florida. There were reports of employers coming down on employees for not getting to work. What it really comes down to is the specific laws in your state. Blame right-to-work laws.
Before we get into what kind of help you can get if you’re fired or laid off, let’s take a look at the other “indirect” losses that occur during natural disasters.

Jobs and other indirect losses

Hurricane Irma Satellite Image
It affects more than just the surrounding area. | National Hurricane Center
  • Economic costs are much harder to calculate than damage estimates and can eventually add up to much higher amounts.

Jobs are only a piece of the economic puzzle when it comes to calculating out storm damages. According to The Impacts of Natural Disasters, a 1999 report from the Board on Natural Disasters, you have to take into account that many businesses have to shut down even if they’re not damaged.
“A ruptured power line is readily observed and the cost of its repair evaluated. Far less obvious are losses such as those of industries that are forced to close down because they lack critical power supplies, firms with power that lose business because suppliers or buyers lacked power, and firms that lose business because employees of firms affected by the power outage have reduced incomes and consequently spent less,” the report said.
So it’s not just those in harm’s way who are impacted by a disaster. If you’re an oil worker in North Dakota, for example, you might need to worry about your job if a hurricane hits Texas and Louisiana due to refinery closures. When you take economy-wide issues into account, natural disasters become multi-dimensional issues.
But there are federal programs designed to help those disasters put out of work.

Federal programs designed to help you

This picture shows an aerial view of a home that has been flooded in Houston
There are government programs in place to help those in need. | Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images
  • Yes, the government has your back: the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program

The good news: There is a federal program designed to help those who are put out of a job due to disasters. It’s called the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, and it works in a similar way to unemployment insurance. “The Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program provides unemployment benefits to individuals who have become unemployed as a direct result of a presidentially declared major disaster,” reads the description on Benefits.gov. So, yes, there is help out there.
But how do you qualify?

Do you qualify?

flooded street with people walking
You need to be out of a job as a direct result of the disaster. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • You’ll need to satisfy two major requirements.

There are two major requirements, according to the National Employment Law Project. They are “1) The individual must be out of work as a “direct result” of a major disaster, and 2) The individual does not qualify for regular unemployment insurance (UI) from any state.” And like traditional unemployment insurance, workers must be actively looking for a new job and accept one if it becomes available. Also, they have to prove they’re looking for work on a weekly basis. The key qualification, though, is you must be out of a job as a direct result of a disaster.
Qualified? Great. Now, what can you expect?

What you get and for how long

destroyed houses
You’ll receive a maximum of 26 weeks. | Andrea Booher/FEMA photo
  • It’s pretty much the same as unemployment insurance, and you’ll get it for a maximum of 26 weeks

As mentioned, Disaster Unemployment Assistance benefits are similar to traditional unemployment insurance benefits. As such, those who qualify will receive benefits on a weekly basis for a maximum of 26 weeks, or six months.
According to the National Employment Law Project, “DUA recipients receive the same weekly benefits that they would have been entitled to had they qualified for UI in the state where they were employed. However, at a minimum, DUA benefits cannot be less than one-half of the state’s average weekly UI benefits.” The amount you’ll end up getting will depend on how much you were earning before the disaster.
Finally, natural disasters are no joke. Just look at what happened after one of the most recent hurricanes: Harvey.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and more

high water
Unemployment increased with the natural disaster. | Tobin/Wikimedia Commons
  • After Hurricane Harvey, jobless claims increased by 62,000 nationally — and experts blame a lot of it on the hurricane.

The takeaway here is there are programs in place to assist those forced from their jobs by natural disasters. But if there’s another thing to remember, it’s that you could be impacted even if you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away. Your house might be undamaged, but your employer’s building might be underwater or blown over. If you live in an area prone to disasters — be it hurricanes, earthquakes, or even volcanoes — be ready and aware that things can happen. And just because you might get through it intact, your employment situation could be a different story.