The Innovative Workplace
Planning and preparing for bad weather
We all know that bad weather can affect business operations. Last year certainly had its share—from heavy rains and floods to strong winds, fires and more.
Winter is upon us, and for many parts of the country it means harsher weather is coming our way, if it’s not here already. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts a cooler, wetter north and a warmer, drier south, with La Niña emerging as the wild card for weather changes this year.
Closing workplaces because of bad weather and dealing with employee productivity and pay issues create additional business expenses and require extra management attention.
Bad weather conditions affect not only our business operations, but also employee productivity—and in many ways, from commuting hazards to school closures that create childcare issues to power outages and property damage. Closing workplaces because of bad weather and dealing with employee productivity and pay issues create additional business expenses and require extra management attention.
Although you can’t change what Mother Nature sends your way, you can get ready by developing a well-thought-out and clearly-communicated inclement weather plan. This kind of plan lets you stay ahead of business disruptions and practical employee relations, wage and hour, and safety issues that can arise during a weather crisis or natural disaster.
Your overall inclement weather plan for employees should consider all of the variables relating to the business disruption, including:
- The definition of what constitutes inclement weather that will affect your business
- Safety considerations for employees and facilities
- Back-up planning for systems or other critical operations
- Designation of authorized personnel who will determine whether the business will close or have a delayed opening or early closing
- How resulting work responsibilities will be handled Employee notification and reporting procedures. Be sure to have multiple methods for employee notification in case of power failures.
Consider personal hardships. Your plan also should consider personal employee issues that arise because of bad weather. For example, even if the business doesn’t close (or is open and staffed with only essential personnel), schools and daycare facilities may be closed. Public transportation may not be running.
Employees could be without power, or they may have damage to their homes. They could be completely snowed in and unable to get their vehicles out of the driveway. Think through the possible issues your employees may face and how you will handle the missed time from work.
Anticipate employee communication needs. Make your communications as comprehensive as possible regarding business operations, reporting procedures, pay issues, and other employee concerns. In the face of severe weather conditions, your employees will have questions about what to do and what to expect from the company. Be prepared to provide answers to such questions as:
- How will I be notified if I am expected to come in to work? Can I work from home or a company location that is closer to my home?
- If schools or daycare centers are closed, can I bring my children to work or work from home to take care of them?
- What should I do if I’m told I need to be at work and the public transportation I take is not operating? Or my car won’t start? Or the roads are unsafe for driving? Will this absence count against our attendance policy?
- If I cannot work because of bad weather, will I be paid for the time off? Will my vacation or paid time off balance be charged for the time missed?
- How do I report my time?
Work out the issues that would be important to your business operations and get your plan ready before there is a need to use it. Consider these factors:
- Workforce planning: If there will be a need to operate with a reduced workforce during inclement weather conditions, determine staffing needs for essential and nonessential personnel and establish preliminary work schedules. Weigh the risks of the business disruption with potential risks of negligent liability if employees are involved in accidents at work caused by the harsh conditions. Check your liability insurance for coverage for these potential events.
- Communications: Identify who is responsible for announcing closures and how that information will be communicated to all employees. Have multiple methods for communication that take into account power and phone outages. Get creative: Use social media, recorded phone message lines, and other forms of electronic communication as well as traditional methods like phone trees. Let employees know who the key decision makers are and how to check in. As a best practice, remind employees of your communication protocols and office closure policies when severe weather is forecasted, even if you don’t need to use those policies.
- Employee relations: Determine how you will handle questions about childcare, working from home or other closer-to-home company locations, and other employee considerations that may affect your business. Be sure to specify in your inclement weather policy what kinds of positions can work remotely, when employees can do it, how they should report the work they are doing, and how they should record the time they spend working remotely. Be sure to communicate your company position relative to these policies and be consistent in the application of your rules.
- Advance training: Treat winter storm preparedness like a fire drill to ensure that employees are ready in the event of a real emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “Prepare Your Organization for a Winter Storm Playbook” publication has helpful tips and training activities, along with resource information, to help organizations and individuals prepare for inclement weather.
- Benefits and pay: Your employees will be concerned about pay and benefits, especially during this time when they may be facing additional personal expenses or have injuries or illnesses as a result of the weather. The law treats overtime nonexempt/hourly employees differently from exempt employees when it comes to pay for time not worked (see below). Make sure your management team is fully aware of the company’s pay obligations under state and federal laws and regulations, and understands the company’s policies for managing those rules when employees ask about their pay.
More on pay
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) covers compensation for partial or full-day absences that are outside of both the employer’s and the employee’s control because of weather or other natural disasters. Many states have laws that cover this issue, so be sure to check relevant state pay rules.
What follows are rules you need to know when developing your inclement weather pay practice. It’s always okay to provide richer compensation programs than the FLSA or state law requires.
For nonexempt/hourly employees. Under the FLSA, you are not required to pay nonexempt hourly employees if they perform no work. This is true for most partial-day closures, such as when employees report for work and then are told there is no work for them. In addition, the FLSA does not require an employer to keep employees working for any specific number of hours or to pay them for hours they were assigned to work but didn’t.
Laws vary from state to state relating to reporting-time pay rules, so be sure to check which laws apply to your organization. But even in states where additional reporting-time pay is not a requirement, many employers do pay something, such as a minimum of two hours’ pay for time not worked when bad weather forces an early closing. If the company is being kept open and employees are voluntarily allowed to leave early, however, these employees are usually not paid for the time off.
For exempt employees. The rules for exempt employees are more difficult because the FLSA provides that employees classified as exempt are paid for the jobs they do on a “salary basis,” not the hours they work. Under the FLSA, exempt employees should be paid their full salary for any work performed in that work week.
Even though the FLSA does not require employers to provide any kind of paid time off (vacation, personal time, sick leave, or holidays) to any workers, if you do have those programs, you may substitute any paid time off as a deduction from the exempt employee’s PTO bank to cover the pay for the time not worked because of the facility closure, even if it is less than a full day, without affecting the salary basis of payment. This is true as long as the employee still receives a paycheck equal to his or her guaranteed salary.
Therefore, if you close the office for less than a full workweek, you must pay the exempt employee’s full salary, even if:
- there is no PTO program “leave bank”
- the employee has no accrued benefits in a company-provided leave bank or not enough paid time left in the bank (that would take the balance negative) or
- the balance in the bank is already negative.
Further, if the company remains open during the bad weather and an exempt employee is absent for one or more full days for personal reasons (transportation issues, weather-related housing damage, childcare closures, and so forth), you can make deductions from the employee’s salary for such absences.
The lessons learned from previous weather disasters underscore the importance of planning ahead. Michael Brennan of the National Hurricane Center stresses that preparation is vital, especially for businesses in severe weather-prone areas. “You need to have your plan in place before the storm arrives,” Brennan says. He believes that if a business doesn’t do the up-front work, it won’t be able to react quickly enough or to think through everything the business needs once the storm arrives.
Employees likewise need to plan for themselves and their families. You can help your employees by providing them advance notice of what to expect when bad weather strikes and preparing them to manage their professional and personal obligations during the weather event.
As with any insurance product, you plan for the worst and hope for the best. Here’s hoping for a milder winter across the country this year!
Laura Kerekes is ThinkHR’s Chief Knowledge Officer and leads the ThinkHR content knowledge and human resources service delivery teams. ThinkHR partners with over 650 leading insurance brokers and payroll bureaus with an HR knowledge platform that enables their clients to obtain quick answers to urgent risk and liability questions.