It's never a good idea to start creating personnel policies to cover emergency situations on the fly. Nor is that necessary if you've done contingency planning. You should already have in place a plan for work attendance and pay practices when a fierce storm or other disaster hits. Generally, the legal requirements you face as an employer are relatively straightforward, but there are times when just following the legally required minimums could backfire. For example, by law you may only have to pay salaried employees in an emergency, but if that creates resentment among other employees who were willing to work, it might be cheaper to pay others as well (more about this later). That will require some judgment calls, keeping in mind two key federal laws, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
OSHA comes into play in a weather emergency, or any other kind of unusual event that threatens worker safety. This law's fundamental purpose is to protect workers from "recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."
Start by deciding how you will inform your employees if your company must shut down or if you don't want to risk their safety getting to work. Set a policy they can count on, such as: "Employees will be notified by text or phone call when there's a closure," or instruct them to check the company website, assuming those methods are available. Obviously, if there's no reasonable safe way for staff to get to work in a storm or other weather emergency, they shouldn't try.
Suppose your employees can get to work safely without undue problems, but being at work is a hazard. For example, the roads may be fine, but a heavy, wet snow raises the possibility that your company's roof could collapse, endangering everyone inside. Requiring or even allowing workers to be there could make you liable under OSHA. Similarly, if it's not possible to keep snow and ice off the walkways leading to the building's entrance, that too could create liability issues should an injury happen — to your workers and your customers.
Once you've decided to close your doors based on safety or practical considerations, you need to decide who gets paid. Being aware of what state and local laws require is a good place to start.
Under the FLSA, exempt salaried employees generally must be paid, unless your business is closed for more than a week. But since you must pay them anyway, nothing prevents you from encouraging staff to work from the safety of their own homes, when that option is feasible.
One possibility for dealing with exempt workers is to have their closure-induced paid time off count against their accumulated paid leave allowance. (Note: Employees who have already used up their credit must still be paid under the FLSA.)
Whether or not it's wise to require employees to use their paid leave allowance is tricky, from an employee relations standpoint. Understandably, employees who give up their vacation days in exchange for a paycheck may resent coworkers who have already used up their vacation time when the FLSA requires that they still get paid.
If you're on the fence about this policy question, find out how other employers in your area handle the issue. Also, if weather-induced closures are common in your geographic area, it might be a good time to consider changing your paid vacation policy to add a little more flexibility.
What about hourly workers? The FLSA only requires that you pay them for hours actually worked. That means there's no distinction between when they decide on their own not to report to work due to weather conditions, and days when you tell them not to come in.
Suppose that, during a weather emergency, non-exempt employees take it upon themselves to perform work for you from home, without your permission. You might still be required to pay them. If that's a situation you need to avoid, it's important to clarify in advance that such work won't be paid. You'd be wise to put that policy in writing and ask employees to sign an acknowledgement.
You may, at times, be required to pay hourly workers even when they're not working. That can happen when they're asked to be on standby so that, if they're needed, they'll be ready to come in upon request. Whether you're obliged to pay them depends on the degree to which their freedom is restricted during the on-call period.
Let's say that an ice storm causes a major utility pole to fall and your company loses power. You ask hourly workers to hang out in the dark in hopes of a prompt restoration of power, even though they can't work. Those employees must be paid because they can't do anything else with their time. A better option might be to tell them the office is closed due to weather, and ask them to keep their cell phones handy in case you decide to open the office later in the day. Those workers are then free to do whatever they want in the interim. Their time would probably not be deemed so restricted that you'd be required to pay them.
Of course, you can't foresee every possibility that you'll face when weather emergencies strike. But the more you can decide in advance about how to handle such situations, and communicate your policies clearly to employees, the better. That gives your workforce a chance to accept the terms of your policy when they're not already under the stress of emergency conditions.
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