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What are employer responsibilities in bad weather?

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful. And since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

What a wonderful tune for this time of year! But wait a minute… we do have somewhere to go! We have to go to work.

Snow is quite delightful — when we can stay home by the fire and enjoy it. But when it causes commute issues, power outages, employee absences, and production shut downs, it’s not nearly as fun. In fact, for employers, snow can be downright painful.

Inclement weather — be it snow, ice, wind storms, or torrential rain — often raises questions and concerns for employers. We need to ensure our employees’ safety, keep our businesses open and running, and manage the pay related questions that arise.

Naturally, the safety of our employees is always our biggest and most urgent concern.

In some work environments, employees are more exposed to the weather or the cold. OSHA has guidelines for employers to prevent “cold stress.” Some of the precautions that employees can take include taking breaks to get warm, drinking warm and/or sweet caffeine-free beverages, avoiding smoking (which constricts blood flow to the skin), using the buddy system to watch out for each other, and requiring employees to wear the proper clothing for the weather conditions. In addition, employers and employees should understand the symptoms of cold-induced illnesses and injuries.

Employers are not required to pay for everyday clothing, which would include ordinary weather gear such as heavy boots, jackets, parkas, hats or gloves. However, if you require something out of the ordinary, OSHA requires the employer to pay for it.

Preventing injuries due to the weather is another important element. On the job injuries, such as muscle strains, are more likely to occur in someone whose muscles aren’t warmed up. Providing a brief time to stretch and get warm can help to prevent those injuries. Cold extremities lack sensitivity and can be more prone to injuries with machinery and objects. Giving employees information on how to keep their hands and feet warm and nimble can help to prevent those injuries.

Depending on your business needs, you may have employees who utilize a company car or drive a company vehicle as part of their workday. We all know firsthand that driving in severe weather is often the most dangerous part of the day. When an employee is driving a company vehicle as part of their job, employers need to be sure that they are doing so safely.

Prior to the weather turning bad, vehicles need a winter safety check. The mechanic will check tires, fluids, battery, heater, brakes, defroster, antifreeze and other components that will ensure your employees’ safety. All company vehicles should be equipped with emergency tools, such as a snow scraper or broom, blanket, flares, first aid kit and flash light. A bag of sand, small shovel and booster cables are also helpful during an emergency. Lastly, drivers need to know who they can call when an emergency arises. A corporate paid membership for a roadside assistance program is peace of mind for drivers and their employers.

For your protection against liability, and your employees’ safety, drivers of company vehicles need to be aware of how to drive in severe weather. They also need to know what to do in case of an accident. There are many resources online with guidelines on safe winter driving. It’s a good idea to print out this information and distribute it to your employees.

Wicked winter weather can inflict more than just safety-related woes on your business. Employers often wonder how to handle the issues that arise when a business has to open late, close early, or close for the day due to troublesome weather conditions. Pay-related issues in particular can be confusing.

You are only required to pay non-exempt employees for the hours that they actually work. If your business is closed due to the weather, you send workers home, or ask them to come in late, you are not required to pay them for the time they’ve missed. On the other hand, if you have a power outage, and ask workers to stay and wait for the power to come back on, you do need to pay them for their time, regardless of whether it’s used productively or not. In the event of a power outage, you also have the option of sending your employees home and contacting them to come back to work once the power is on. In this case, you would only need to pay them for the time that they were actually at work.

Exempt employees must be treated differently under wage and hour laws. If an exempt employee works any part of the day, you must pay them for the entire day. If your office is open and an exempt employee cannot come in due to weather, this is an absence due to a personal reason, and you do not need to pay them.

However, if you close your offices for a day, you have to pay your exempt employees. You can require them to utilize available paid time off, such as vacation time, if they have it available. However, if they do not have available paid time off, you must still pay them for the day. The exception to this is a business closure of a week or more. In this case, you are not required to pay your exempt employees.

On the bright side, depending on the nature of your business, many times, exempt employees can do some work from home. If you’re already paying them for the day, you can feel comfortable asking your exempt employees to continue to perform work.

Business is often slow or constrained during bad weather. You may not need all employees to report to work. Identify in advance the “essential personnel” that must come in. Let your employees know how they will be notified of what to do when the weather is bad. Will someone call them? Will they check the company’s website or intranet? Will they receive an email? Will you automatically close or start late based on what the local school district does?

Oftentimes our employees come from various communities throughout the area, and one might be covered in snow, while another is fine. Employees should be forearmed with the contact info for whomever they should call to find out the conditions at work, and whether or not they are expected to come in.

As always, it helps to have your policies spelled out in your employee handbook in advance. If you have a set inclement weather policy, you’ll avoid confusion because your employees will know in advance what to do when the weather turns foul. As this article has outlined, there are many elements to consider and include in the policy.

It’s true that the nature of emergencies is that they happen when we’re least prepared for them. Luckily for us, most of the time our bad weather is predicted by the forecasters, giving us the opportunity to prepare ourselves and our employees. Removing as much stress and confusion as possible during a severe weather situation will enable everyone to focus on the important issues at hand — keeping warm, dry and safe, and keeping the business functioning. Then when we hear those merry lyrics, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” we won’t get that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs!

(Editor’s Note: Julie Tappero is the President and owner of West Sound Workforce, a professional staffing and recruiting company based in Poulsbo and Gig Harbor. She can be reached at julie [at] westsoundworkforce [dot] com. View her LinkedIn profile at www.linkedin.com/in/jtappero and follow her on Twitter @wswhr. The recommendations and opinions provided are based on general human resource management fundamentals, practices and principles, and are not legal opinions, advice, or guaranteed outcomes. Consult with your legal counsel when addressing legal concerns related to human resource issues and legal contracts.)

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