Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful! The Down-and-Dirty on Snowy Days and Employee Pay

An employer asked this morning what the “right way” is to handle weather-related attendance issues that were caused by a severe winter storm in its region.

In a nutshell, the facts go something like this:  Several employees already were scheduled to be out on PTO.  Due to significant ice and snow, the decision was made around 9:00 a.m. to close the office for the entire day.   The employees who were already out on PTO want their leave to be credited back.  The employees who were able to make it to the office want to be credited for the time they worked.  The employer also had a concern about how to handle the weather’s impact on exempt employees’ salaries.

Is there a “right” answer to these questions?  Well, yes and no.

As for the first issue, there is not necessarily a legal requirement to credit back the PTO leave to those employees who were already scheduled to take it.  State laws often require only that an employer follow its established and announced policy, assuming it has one.

If a business has no applicable policy, however, it probably just comes down to a judgment call.  On one hand, the office ended up being closed for the day anyway, so what would it hurt to give those PTO hours back?  Maybe pretty good employee relations, right?

On the other hand, those employees already made the decision to use their PTO time, regardless of the weather, and the company may not want to establish a precedent that allows employees to get PTO “rebates” in some circumstances but perhaps not in others.  Where to draw that line could open up a Pandora’s box of potential discrimination and “fairness” issues.  (Remember, fairness isn’t necessarily a legal requirement, but the perceived lack of it can give rise to a lot of headaches.)

In the end, it may just come down to the employer deciding how much of a grinch it wants to be.  Or that it will be perceived to be.  Whatever path is chosen, it should be followed consistently whenever similar circumstances arise in the future.

The second issue is much more straightforward.  Businesses are required to pay employees for their work.  If non-exempt employees braved the elements, made it to the office, and actually performed work, they must be paid for all time worked.  That’s the law.  It doesn’t matter that the office closed early or that some employees may not have been able to make it to the office at all.  All time actually worked by an employee must be compensated.

Finally, what about those exempt employees?  Here’s where it gets a bit technical.  In this case, the office ended up being closed for virtually the entire day.  When that happens, organizations can require exempt employees to take vacation time or some other type of paid leave, but they can’t just impose leave without pay by docking an exempt worker's salary for the day.  Employers may charge time off as leave in these circumstances even in amounts less than a day as long as the employee's salary remains the same.

If a business remains open during inclement weather, however, and an exempt employee misses work for his/her own (non-illness) reason (e.g., roads are too dangerous; would rather spend time with the kids playing in the snow; etc.), the employer can take a full-day deduction from the person's salary.  Or the employer can require the employee to use vacation time or accrued leave to cover the time off.  Note well, however, that only full-day absences may be deducted from an exempt employee’s salary in this circumstance.  And an exempt employee who shows up for even part of a day on which the business is open should be paid for a full day, regardless of how long he/she is there.

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