Oct 20, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The new push for climate disaster PTO

Illustration of an hourglass with a tornado and lightning in the top portion

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

In late 2017, a handful of U.S. tech companies started giving their employees paid time off to respond to climate disasters. Not long after, the emerging trend fizzled out before it really began.

Why it matters: As Florida recovers from Hurricane Ian, and climate change threatens more rapidly strengthening storms like it, a few grassroots organizations are working to bring back that momentum.

What they're saying: Denise Diaz, co-director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, told Axios that a coalition of advocacy organizations is putting pressure on Florida state legislators to enact workforce protections for extreme weather events in the wake of Ian.

  • "We saw with this hurricane that workers were not given adequate time to prepare for this storm, or time off in order to be able to collect supplies and really be able to weather the storm," Diaz told Axios.
  • A Central Florida Jobs with Justice workers survey following Hurricane Irma in 2017 found that over half of the 134 Florida respondents reported being threatened with discipline or termination if they didn’t come in to work during the storm.

The intrigue: No state or federal legislation exists that requires employers to provide paid leave to employees in the event of extreme weather disasters.

  • For extreme heat, California, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota are the only states to have enacted some form of workplace heat safety regulations, as reported by the Washington Post.
  • Opponents of the idea see it as another form of excessive business regulation and a vehicle for lawsuits against employers.

State of play: Labor legislation around climate change tends to focus on things like providing funding to strengthen infrastructure at climate disaster-prone locations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

  • "Although there is a growing trend of states adopting legislation that directly addresses climate change, we have not found any state legislation that had specifically required employers to provide paid leave in the event of climate/extreme weather disasters," NCSL told Axios in an email.

Of note: This doesn't necessarily mean individual companies aren't doing it.

  • In 2017, Anil Dash, then CEO at software company Glitch, announced the company's adoption of climate leave, or PTO for extreme weather disruptions caused by climate change.
  • "We had people who were simultaneously in the path of a hurricane that season as well as affected by the wildfires in California at the same time," Dash told Axios.
  • The policy has since been regularly put to use. "Every single fire season, it was utilized. Every single hurricane season, it was utilized."

Earlier this year, Glitch was acquired by Fastly, which has an unlimited worker leave policy, doing away with the need for climate PTO.

Yes, but: Limitless PTO is largely a tech job perk, not an option for those in low-wage professions.

  • Across the country, workers protections for paid leave for people in low-wage jobs are few to none.
  • Climate change driving hotter heat waves, more intense hurricanes and heavier rainstorms is heightening exposure risk for those workers.
  • "The need is only going to increase. Companies are going to have to reckon with it," Dash told Axios. "It's not something you can negotiate with. You can't wish away the storms, you can't wish away the ocean."

Between the lines: Without an employment policy that allows for paid time off due to extreme weather events, people of color working in sectors of low wages — which can be linked to historic discriminatory wage policies — will continue to be disproportionately impacted by climate disasters, according to Diaz.

  • "It is a whole trifecta of impacts on them, and it's really exacerbating protections that they didn't have to start with," Diaz told Axios.

What we're watching: Last month, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced the Worker Safety in Climate Disasters Act, which would require employers to offer employees two weeks PTO in the event of a climate disaster.

The other side: Education and Labor Committee Republican Leader Virginia Foxx (R-NC) told Axios in a written statement that the bill will lead to workers and employers being "pummeled" with "burdensome regulations and penalties."

  • "The Democrats keep trying to slap a new coat of paint onto the same tired tactics. This newly-introduced bill is another attempt to expand federal control over the American workforce and put job creators on trial," Foxx wrote. "The only people this bill helps are the armies of trial lawyers who are waiting to file lawsuits against job creators.”
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