Polar Vortex: three workplace concerns for US employers

When blizzards coat huge portions of the US and snow is forecast in South Georgia and Florida of all places, you know there is an extreme weather event taking place. So what’s an employer to do? The latest Polar Vortex is the perfect time for businesses to take a fresh look at their bad weather policies.

1. Wages

Do you have to pay workers on inclement weather days?

As is often the case, the answer is it depends.

Did the worker work remotely while away from the office? If so, then yes. They should get paid.

Is the worker an exempt employee? If so, then if it is an inclement weather day, they need to be paid if they would have worked if you had let them. If it turns into an inclement weather week, and they didn’t work during that time, then you probably don’t have to pay them.

Is the worker nonexempt? If so, you only have to pay them for hours worked. However, some states require nonexempt employees to be paid for showing up to work if the employees are not provided adequate notice of a workplace closure.

2. Contingency Plans

Many businesses, which are not prepared, end up never opening again after a major event causes a shut down.

To avoid this fate, it is important to have a contingency plan that will address exactly what is going to happen when Mother Nature strikes.

Who is in charge? There should be a point person or a board that has the authority to shut down the workplace if it needs to shut down.
How will employees find out if the workplace closes? There are many options: as examples depending on the size of the business, a phone tree; a hotline; an internet site; or a broadcast on the news (radio or television). It is also a good idea to have multiple ways to announce a closure. That way, if phones are down, but the internet is up, the employee can still find out. Finally, whatever your system, make sure employees know what it is and how it works.
Will the basic operations still be able to function even if the main workplace is closed? You don’t want to be closed for an extended time. So, if inclement weather hits, are employees set up to telecommute if their job descriptions make that possible? Is there a way to communicate with clients and vendors outside of the bad weather area? For any employees still able to work, are payroll operations still functioning?
Will financial and client information be protected? A good continuity plan will address how to protect all of the business’s important data.

To make sure these questions are answered, take a moment to evaluate your contingency plan. Did it hold up to the icy weather?

3. Health and Safety

Employers need to take reasonable steps to ensure the worker’s health and safety.

If employees are working outside in the cold, what are you doing to protect them from hypothermia and frostbite?
If, despite your efforts, someone shows symptoms from the elements, are you able to recognize the warning signs and act accordingly?
Have you salted and cleared the parking lots so employees do not trip and fall on their way into the building? If the weather gets worse, and it is not possible for employees to leave, have supplies on hand to handle this situation.

It is a good idea to have a backup generator. This not only helps with data retention, but it allows employees to work in the light and with heat even if the building loses power.

If some of the employees will be required to drive work vehicles such as trucks during this storm, make sure the vehicle is winterized, the employee knows how to drive in icy terrains, and a first aid and emergency kit is in the vehicle that the employee knows how to use.