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With much of the East Coast and Middle Atlantic states blanketed in snow recently, questions invariably arise as to how employees should be compensated when offices are closed.

It’s in some ways a cut-and-dry issue depending on whether employees are classified as exempt or non-exempt. However, with extreme weather no longer restricted to winter months or to certain regions of the country, and with telecommuting increasingly popular and technologically feasible, these days it’s not a simple matter of how to compensate a worker for showing up to the office or not. It’s likely that employers and benefits professionals will face this nuanced issue with increasing frequency as time goes on.

The Flexibility of PTO

As a recent article indicates, non-exempt employees have always been a relative no-brainer in the case of an office closing and/or inclement weather: they are paid only for the hours they work at any given time.

For exempt employees, the situation is a little more complicated. If the office closes for all or part of a week due to a storm, they are paid if they work at all during that time – even remotely. What’s changed in the current work environment is whether employers can require full-time staffers to use paid time off (PTO) to be compensated for not reporting to work (or being unable to).

In the absence of a written company policy or a state law mandating otherwise, it seems that they can. Whether they want to do so–and likely engender a certain amount of ill will on the part of their staff–is another matter entirely.

Further, if an employer makes a decision to keep the office open during bad weather and an employee can’t or doesn’t wish to come in, technically the boss can dock the worker’s pay. Then there’s the question of creating a “PTO deficit” for individuals who don’t have sufficient PTO saved up for emergency use. Indeed, what if they are in deficit when they leave the company? Will they have to repay the borrowed PTO?

Exempt, But Not From Using Vacation Time

Companies typically look to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for guidance on these issues, as it was the FLSA that created the distinction between non-exempt and exempt employees in the first place.

As a Primepay blog written shortly after Hurricane Sandy raised all matter of comp issues for emergency office closing discusses, FLSA indicates that exempt employees must be paid their same salary for missed work in order to retain exempt status. Docking them for hours not worked would not adequately differentiate exempt staffers from non-exempt personnel. Exempt workers can’t be penalized if there happens to be no work available; however, they can be required to use their accrued vacation time or other PTO to be duly compensated and retain their status.

You (The Employer) Do the Math

Interestingly, the FLSA itself doesn’t require employers to grant exempt employees paid time off (though state and local laws, not to mention individual company policies, may). That leaves the door open for bosses to require that their personnel use PTO if the office closes due to bad weather, as long as exempt employees are paid the same salary at the end of the pay period, according to an article from The Day Shift.

That can hold true even if an employee was already scheduled to be on vacation on a day (or days) that a storm forces the office to close. Where the situation can get a little murky is when an employee’s absence fails to meet the FLSA approved deductions for absence – i.e., when it’s considered “personal leave” for reasons other then illness or accident, or approved unpaid leave.

Office closings due to inclement weather can conceivably fall into that category. Also, non-exempt employees who work in the field or at satellite offices in the event of bad weather can sometimes fall outside the FLSA guidelines. If they are forced to wait out a storm and are stuck in the field when the main office is closed, the DOL would consider that compensable time, in most cases.

The upshot for employers, as the author of the Dayshift piece points out, is that they have a certain amount of leeway to use their discretion in compensating their personnel (non-exempt, as well as exempt) when there’s a blizzard or other weather emergency. They can, for example, pay staffers more than they’re required to by law or statute, and thereby earn potentially more in good will from employees than it would cost them in overtime or not necessitating the use of PTO.

Particularly in the case of non-exempt individuals, it’s a good practice to look at each case individually before deciding whether or how much workers should be paid. Weather emergencies tend to bring on extenuating circumstances for everyone in a firm, which would tend to invite more, rather than less, generosity. Yes, bosses are within their rights to pay non-exempt people only for hours technically worked; and also to dock exempt workers or charge them PTO when the office is closed. But sometimes erring on the side of giving people a break will earn you more in loyalty and gratitude than playing strictly by the rules.

Note to HR professionals who have recently dealt with a weather emergency: Now might be a good time to revisit your firm’s written policy on storm closings and PTO, or to draft a formal policy if the company doesn’t have one.

Last modified on Friday, 05 February 2016
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