The weather outside is frightful. Actually, in parts of the Midwest, where the polar vortex has centered, it’s lethal. Conditions have been so cold (we’re talking minus 25 degrees in Minneapolis, minus 27 in Chicago, with an even frostier windchill) that at frigid conditions have been blamed for at least nine deaths. Schools are closed, flights are canceled and businesses are closing shop until conditions improve.
#PolarVortex2019 is something of a weather legend in the making. This sort of thing doesn’t happen every year, or even every century (thus far), but bad weather conditions do occur with some frequency — even more so of late as global warming kicks in.
What does bad weather mean for commuting workers? Even a run-of-the-mill blizzard can shut down roads and delay or cancel transit service. When working from home isn’t an option based on the nature of the position (in the case of say waitstaff or retail clerks), what are the rules? Does the law protect you if you literally can’t make it to work because of the weather?
We spoke to an HR consultant and an employment lawyer to get the answers.
It’s generally not frowned upon to work from home if possible
Thanks to technology, most workers who have the opportunity to work remote in inclement weather are allowed it without much of a fuss.
“So many companies have decided to assist employees in work/home balance,” says Dawn D. Boyer, Ph.D., CEO at D. Boyer Consulting and author of "Human Resource Professionals in Government Contracting Guidebook". “[Though] some businesses need employees ‘on site’ (manufacturing, restaurants, etc.), other companies have business models that can accommodate telecommute easily with technology capabilities.”
So, if your company has the capacity to enable remote work (even if just for a couple days), it should be an easy set up, particularly since, as Boyer highlights, your safety should be your employer’s number one concern.
If you can’t work from home, check your employer’s policies
If you need to be on site to get your job done, and can’t get to work because of bad weather (or if commuting would require facing a dangerous situation like icy roads), consult your employee handbook (or HR) to find out if there’s a company policy designed to handle such situations.
“If you have questions check if there’s a company policy in place to handle these situations,” says Angela Rochester, associate general counselor and human resources consultant for Engage. “If there’s not a policy in place, address the issue with your manager or with HR. We always stress to communicate sooner rather than later; also, a good employer will communicate [any policies or guidelines] to you well in advance.”
Keep up on the forecast so you’re prepared
“Weather predictions are usually 24 to 48 hours in advance,” says Boyer. “Employees can potentially make plans to take work home (if easily transportable), set up the technology (forward calls to cell or land lines), or make plans for meetings via conference calls (Internet-based), etc.”
Your employer is legally obligated to prioritize your safety
Employers are legally required to make sure you’re not in danger. This responsibility is enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This includes everything from making sure sidewalks and parking lots are clear of snow to prevent falls to regulations around specific jobs.
“OSHA has guidelines for working in inclement weather,” says Rochester. “For instance, OSHA allows motor carrier drivers to refuse to drive in unsafe conditions. This [right] does extend to other jobs depending on the nature of the safety issue and the position in question. As a best practice, we try to help employers avoid OSHA issues. Safety can mean many things, so we recommend that employers never put their employees in that position.”
If your business is shut down, you may not get paid
If you’re a wage worker at a business that is shutting down because of the weather, then you may bear the brunt by not getting paid. Same goes if you can’t make it to work. Regrettably, this is not against the law. Salaried workers, on the other hand, do have to be paid for missed time — even if that means cutting into their sick days or vacation time.
Communication is key
If your company has no policy regarding inclement weather, and your boss is sorely lacking in empathy, there’s no law prohibiting them from threatening to fire you if you can’t prove in a specific way that getting to work is a safety hazard.
But this is very unlikely to occur.
In her career, Rochester has never heard of such a scenario, adding, “There's always a solution the employer can think of. They may have you take a paid vacation day or a day of no pay and come back when circumstances are more hospitable.”
Boyer adds that threat of termination shouldn't be on the table “unless the employee consistently uses it as an excuse to avoid coming to work and has run out of PTO, and/or there are other mitigating factors.”
Ultimately, this is a very case-by-case basis and as Rochester puts it, “There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.”
Your best bet is to be extremely transparent and communicative with your employer — and to expect the same in return.
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