Texas was gripped by a historic winter storm last month that killed as many as 80 people and overwhelmed its electrical grid, leaving millions of people without power and water. But even under those treacherous conditions, some companies asked employees to log in to work from home or make the journey to work — or lose pay.
A 43-year-old engineer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said her employer, a defense company, asked her to use vacation days or make up for lost work hours during the days her internet was down because the electricity was out.
"We're trying to stay warm over here overnight," she said. "Worrying about whether or not we're working was an unnecessary burden."
With no power, she had no internet and no way to sign in to work. She huddled with her husband and two children in her living room, clutching mugs of boiled water as they waited out the storm, she said.
A group of workers with several large companies told The Daily Beast, which first reported the complaints, that they were also asked to use days without power as personal time off or forgo pay.
A 60-year-old health care worker in Dallas who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation said her employer required her to use vacation days when the power went out at her house for three days. The woman, who waited out the storm huddled under blankets in her living room with her daughter and her three dogs, said she was "extremely frustrated" because she had originally agreed with her boss to make up for the lost time by working extra hours the following week.
"If they want me to take PTO [personal time off], I guess that's what I'll do," the health care worker said. "They're giving me no choice — it's either that or take the time off without pay."
Lawmakers may consider new rules to ensure that workers are not forced to go without pay in climate-related disasters.
A 30-year-old representative with a click-to-chat call center in Texas said she and her husband lost power for four days at their home in Nacogdoches as temperatures dropped into the teens. On Tuesday, the company told employees that roads were too dangerous to go into work. A pipe burst in the office, forcing the company to close for business Wednesday and Thursday. But it did not allow employees to use paid time off to cover the days. Instead, workers had to accept no pay. The call center representative said her paycheck was docked $200.
"I was really frustrated at first," she said. "They said, 'Don't come into work,' but they won't pay us. It makes it hard to believe they have our well-being in mind."
The winter storm poses new questions for worker protections in the era of mounting climate change risks, said Cornelia Alvarez, a staff lawyer with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. Workers who were unable to work during the storm or were fired because they could not find transportation to work may be eligible for unemployment benefits, Alvarez said. But for people who are still without power or do not have access to the internet, applying for benefits to cover missing days of work could be difficult while they are also fixing broken pipes or water damage.
"I know a lot of people are still kind of dealing with having to repair their home or trying to get back to normal," she said. "I think we're all still trying to collect our thoughts."
Texas' infrastructure was not prepared for the onslaught of ice that covered the roads and interrupted power service. But with state investigations into the blackout, lawmakers may consider new rules to ensure that workers are not forced to go without pay in climate-related disasters, said David Guillory, a staff lawyer in the Nacogdoches office of Lone Star Legal Aid.
"Looking forward, I think this is an eye-opener," Guillory said. "I hope lawmakers see this as an opportunity to anticipate climate change and the impact it will have on the workforce and economy."