New Law Requires Employers to Grant Leave to Volunteer Emergency Responders

December 23, 2014

Effective December 22, 2014, employers in New York must grant leave to employees who also serve as volunteer emergency responders during times when the Governor has declared a state of emergency.  Employees eligible for such leave include volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance service personnel who have given their employer prior written documentation regarding their volunteer status or whose duties as a volunteer firefighter or member of a volunteer ambulance service are related to the declared emergency.  In general, the leave may be unpaid, but the employee may choose to use any form of paid leave to which he or she would be entitled under the employer's policies.  The full text of the new law can be found here. Following an employee’s return from such leave, an employer may request a notarized statement from the head of the volunteer fire department or volunteer ambulance service, certifying the period of time that the employee responded to an emergency. An employer may be eligible for a waiver of the leave requirements if it can show that granting an employee leave would cause an undue hardship on the employer’s business.  An undue hardship is defined as an accommodation requiring significant expense or difficulty, including a significant interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system.  Factors to be considered in determining whether granting a leave constitutes an undue hardship include, but are not limited to:
  1. the identifiable cost, including the costs of loss of productivity and of retaining or hiring employees or transferring employees from one facility to another, in relation to the size and operating cost of the employer;
  2. the number of individuals who will need the leave; and
  3. for an employer with multiple facilities, the degree to which the geographic separateness or administrative fiscal relationship of the facilities will make granting the leave more difficult or expensive.
It is believed that the latest version of the bill was signed into law because, unlike prior versions of the bill, it creates an exception for employers who can show that complying with the leave requirements would impose an undue hardship. Although there have not been many reported instances in which employers in New York have terminated employees for missing work to respond to emergencies, supporters of the new law claim that volunteer emergency responders are sometimes reluctant to request leave to respond to an emergency.  This law is intended to allow volunteer emergency responders to request leave during a declared state of emergency without fear of repercussions at work.