How to handle time off and pay for weather-related absences

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Jenny Swinerton, General Counsel, Sequent

Whether it’s a major event such as Hurricane Sandy or simply a snow day, businesses need to be aware of the wage and hour implications of weather-related absences.
“It is important to have clearly defined policies in place that address the many pay-related issues that are involved with a weather-related closing,” says Jenny Swinerton, general counsel at Sequent. “In addition, it’s always a good idea to implement a contingency plan that identifies essential personnel who are vital to the continued operations of the company and establish procedures for communicating with employees regarding emergency closures.”
The same issues apply in cases when businesses close because of an outbreak of the flu.
“This is expected to be one of the worst flu seasons we’ve had in years, so it’s a good time for businesses to review their existing policies to ensure that they address all of the various issues that arise when an employer is forced to close for any reason.”
Smart Business spoke with Swinerton about weather-related absences and how the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) dictates pay requirements.
What happens to employees’ pay when a business closes because of weather? 
Employees are treated differently under the FLSA depending on whether they are classified as nonexempt or exempt. Briefly, nonexempt employees are those who are entitled to overtime pay. Exempt employees are those who are paid on a salaried basis and also meet specific legal requirements to be exempt from the overtime pay requirements.
The FLSA requires employers to pay their nonexempt or hourly employees only for those hours that the employees have actually worked. As a result, if a nonexempt employeed are unable to come to work or the office is closed, the employer is not required to pay them.
Exempt employees generally must be paid their full salary for any week in which they perform work. So, if an employer closes the office because of inclement weather or other disasters for less than a full workweek, the employer must pay the exempt employee’s full salary for the week. The employer may, however, require the exempt employee to use vacation or paid time off.
Does the length of a shutdown determine how you handle absences?
It really doesn’t matter for nonexempt employees because they’re paid only for hours worked. So if you shut down for a week, you don’t have to pay nonexempt employees during that time. With salaried employees, unless an employer suspends operations for an entire workweek, they must be paid their regular weekly salary regardless of the number of hours they worked. This becomes tricky with telecommuting because an exempt employee is often going to be checking email or responding to phone calls even while stranded at home during a storm. If exempt employees work for a small portion of the workweek, they must be paid for the entire week.
If you make deductions from exempt employees’ compensation for absences attributed to inclement weather, you may jeopardize the employees’ exempt status and incur liability for any overtime they may have worked.
What happens if an employer’s business is open, but exempt employees don’t show up?
If the employer remains opens during or after a natural disaster and an exempt employee cannot report to work, the Department of Labor considers this to be an absence for personal reasons. But deductions may only be made from the exempt employee’s salary in full day increments. However, it is important to remember that if a salaried employee performs even a little bit of work during the day, employers are still required to pay the employee’s full day salary.
What else should be considered?
Employees who are instructed to remain on call during inclement weather and who cannot use the time for their own personal benefit must be compensated for this time. Additionally, if employees are performing job duties outside their normal scope, such as sweeping the floor, they may be considered a volunteer and do not need to be paid for that time.
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Jenny Swinerton is general counsel at Sequent. Reach her at (614) 410-2362 or [email protected]
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