December is here, and with it, the weather starts to get colder. If you like skiing, sledding, and all those other winter-weather activities, then this is the time for you. However, when the snow really starts to fall, you might be faced with a dilemma: the decision to keep your business open or shut it down for the day.
You don’t want to lose business, but you also have to think of safety issues. Figuring out the balance, though, can be tough. Plus, either way, there are some logistical and legal considerations to take into account.
The Problems with Remaining Open
It is very tempting to remain open in bad weather, especially if your business focuses on customers outside your geographical area. A retailer might shut down pretty easily because it knows not many people are likely to come in anyway, but for a company that is operating around the country – where the weather is generally great that day – it can be a tougher decision because a lot of business could be lost in that time.
Therefore, you may not want to close down until it is absolutely necessary to do so. However, if you do, there may be some legalese you need to take into account.
On the bright side, you might not have to pay employees who don’t come in (whereas if you closed down, you may, but more about that in the section on closing). If you close down, then you might still have to pay certain workers, but if they chose not to come in when you are open, then they may need to take an unpaid work day in order to be absent. This can actually help with cost reductions as the only people getting paid to work are those who are actually working.
However, there is a downside as well. Let’s say that you chose to remain open, but the weather is unsafe for employees to drive in. People are injured. There is a chance that this could be on your head.
If you are found to be negligent for leaving your doors open on a severe weather day, then you might owe workers for any injuries they suffered because of this decision. This could be done through workers’ compensation under certain circumstances (such as a slip and fall case where an employee is injured after slipping on ice); however, the employee may also have the recourse to skip workers’ compensation – if the injury, like a car accident, falls outside of workers’ comp – and sue you for negligence.
Because of this issue, it is important to think about all the angles when you are deciding whether to stay open or shut down for the day or week.
A good rule of thumb here is to check your insurance policy. Does it offer coverage for injuries on your property caused by inclement weather?
A Special Note on Emergency Operations
There are some businesses that can never shut down no matter how bad the weather gets. Think hospitals, etc., for this category. In these cases, what should they do?
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For starters, they should have a special plan in place for how they will insure workers get into the building. They also may consider shutting down to essential employees only. This means that anyone considered non-essential (i.e., anyone not necessary to the emergency nature of the business) will not have to show up to work. In a hospital setting, think about the gift shop and cafeteria workers, as well as maintenance and janitorial. While there jobs are important, in emergency situations, the hospital can get along without them – unlike the doctors and nurses. Just because a hospital cannot shut down due to inclement weather doesn’t mean everyone needs to be there.
If your business is of the nature making it impossible for you to shut down no matter how bad the weather gets, think about at least scaling down operations when possible in order to protect as many workers as you can.
The Problems with Shutting Down
Perhaps the most obvious problem, at least to business owners, with shutting down for the day or for multiple days is that you lose business. However, this is far from the only consideration you should have.
For example, a big concern for many employees is just how payment works. If you shut down for the day, do you have to pay your employees? After all, they didn’t come in to work, so why should they be paid.
The law surrounding this issue is a little complex. For starters, the answer will be different for exempt employees and for non-exempt employees.
As a general rule, exempt workers must be paid. You cannot dock their paychecks if they completed work anytime during the workweek. This means if the business is only shut down for a few days, these employees must be paid their normal salary.
However, once a week passes, things change. If the weather is so severe that you have to shut down for a whole week or more, that changes. All of a sudden, you can start docking for subsequent time missed.
While you do have to pay them for that first week out, there are some things you can do. For starters, you can require employees to use their paid time off or vacation days for the days they aren’t working. However, if they don’t have any days left, you still cannot deduct them.
Also, where possible, you can encourage telework. Many functions of jobs can be done remotely. Therefore, if your employees can be doing at least some of their job duties from home, you can have them do so. That way, they are being paid for work they are actually doing. Just remember, if they are working from home, they are working. Therefore, if you do end up shutting down for more than a week, they will still need to be paid.
Nonexempt employees do not have to be paid unless they are actually working. However, just like above, remember that if they are working from home, they are working. So even if an employee is nonexempt, if you have them do tasks remotely, you must pay them.
Exempt vs. Nonexempt
How you classify an employee is very important. This post is not the time to get into the differences, but just remember that you need to make sure you are doing it right. If you aren’t, then weather closures are just one of many areas you can get in trouble for incorrect payments.
How to Handle Bad Weather
So now you know all the reasons that weather closures are vastly important. Now, you need to know how to handle these issues. To help, here are five steps you should take to prepare for bad weather (in some cases, even before the weather hits.)
Step 1: Create a Plan
One of the best things you can do during bad weather is have a plan already in place. This means that even before bad weather strikes, you sit down and figure out your policies and procedures.
- Under what circumstances will you shut down?
- Will some people be required to come in still?
- What happens to people already on your premises when the bad weather strikes?
- How will you handle lost business?
- Will people be allowed to telecommute?
- How will you pay people?
- Who needs to be paid?
These are just some of the questions your plan should address.
Step 2: Have a Method of Communication
Whether or not you end up shutting down, employees want to know. Before they get up and drive all the way in, they want a way to check to see if they need to. That is why having a method of communication is so important.
There are many ways to communicate with employees about closures, but it is probably a good idea to offer a couple of methods just in case one doesn’t work (e.g., if all you have is a hotline, but towers are down making calls difficult, people may not be able to use it.)
Here are a few ways you can alert employees to your open status:
- Phone line
- Media reporting
Step 3: Know Essential Employees (and Make Sure They Know Too)
If you do have a business that must remain open, make sure you know who your essential employees are ahead of time. You do not want to wait until the time comes and then decide to figure out who you need and who can stay home.
Just as importantly, make sure your employees know they are essential. That way, if you do partially shut down, they will know if they need to come into work or not.
Step 4: Figure Out Who Gets Paid
Once again, this is something you need to figure out ahead of time. Who are your exempt employees and who are your nonexempt? This is a complicated matter and one that should not be taken lightly. Misclassifying workers can cost you a lot in legal repercussions, and not only just when bad weather strikes. So make sure you know who must get paid during closures (see above) and then make sure you are putting employees into the right categories.
Step 5: Reevaluate Your Plan
Once the bad weather passes and you are fully up and running again, look back on everything and evaluate how it went. Were there things you could have done better? What worked?
With the results of your analysis, go back to your plan and update it with your new knowledge.
Weather can cause you a lot of heartache. However, with a little bit of preparation, you can get all the fun aspects of snow without as many of the problems. Good luck this winter!