Leave for Oregon’s Volunteer Emergency Responders During Unprecedented Wildfires
On September 9, 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued Executive Order No. 20-41 invoking the Emergency Conflagration Act Statewide in light of extreme fire danger. Governor Brown’s invocation of the Emergency Conflagration Act remains in effect until at least November 1, 2020, as wildfires continue to rage. More than 1 million acres of land have burned across Oregon since September 7, 2020. To put things in perspective the area burned is nearly five times the size of New York City. According to Governor Brown, Oregon is facing an unprecedented level of uncontained fire. To put the flames out, Oregon will need all the help that it can get from its courageous firefighters and first responders.
Employers may want to be aware of their ability under Oregon law to grant unpaid leave requests for volunteer firefighters and other first responders who need to perform services to battle the wildfires and perform search and rescue efforts.
Pursuant to ORS 476.574, Oregon private and public employers may provide unpaid leave to employees who are volunteer firefighters, members of rural fire protection districts, or firefighters employed by a city or private firefighting service to perform service in accordance with Oregon’s Emergency Conflagration Act. Pursuant to ORS 404.250, Oregon private and public employers may also “[u]pon request of an employee who is a search and rescue volunteer accepted to participate in search and rescue activities by the sheriff … grant a leave of absence to the employee.”
If an employer provides unpaid leave to an employee who is a volunteer firefighter or search and rescue volunteer, the leave must extend “until release from such service permits the employee to resume the duties of employment.” Once granted leave, the employee has a right to reinstatement to his or her previous position or an equivalent position without loss of seniority, accrued leave, or other benefits. Employers may require employees taking leave for purposes under the act to use all of their available accrued vacation or other paid time off before extending unpaid leave.
Employers that permit employees to take unpaid leave for emergency response activities must follow the prescriptions of ORS 476.574 and ORS 404.250, as a failure to do so may be considered an unlawful employment practice under Oregon law. An aggrieved employee who claims an unlawful employment practice may file a complaint with the commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries or may bring a civil action in circuit court. Aggrieved employees may be entitled to recover compensatory damages, back pay, costs, and attorney’s fees. Aggrieved employees may also be entitled to equitable relief, such as a reinstatement of employment.
In sum, employers of these covered individuals may want to be aware that Oregon law permits optional leave during this critical time. Employers that decide to provide leave may want to consider carefully their statutory obligations in order to avoid a violation resulting in an unlawful employment practice during the protected leave.