Winter is here! Employers, take action

Rich Meneghello, The Daily Record Newswire

Winter is most definitely here. What should employers do now so that their businesses successfully navigate the most brutal season?

Paying employees during snowstorms

First and foremost, plan ahead and develop policies addressing inclement weather, including how employees can find out if the business is open, how their schedule may change, and what they should do if they are unable to reach the workplace. If such policies already exist, review them to make sure they are up-to-date and reflect the current company philosophy.

In addition, ensure that employees are paid properly. Employees should be treated differently depending on whether they are classified as nonexempt or exempt. Compliance for nonexempt employees is fairly straightforward: they only must be paid for hours they work. Unless a different agreement has been reached, an employer does not have to pay nonexempt employees if they miss work due to snow or other inclement weather.

Exempt employees are different: they must be paid their full salary for any week in which they perform work. So, for example, if a company is shut down for three out of five days during a workweek, an employer must still pay exempt employees their normal weekly salary.

What should an employer do when it stays open but the employee is unable to come to work? The Department of Labor says that if a business is open and an exempt employee chooses not to (or is unable to) report to work, the time off may be counted for personal reasons. Under the law, deductions may be taken from an exempt employee’s salary or leave time for absences due to personal reasons, so long as time is not deducted for sick leave. The sole caveat is that deductions from exempt employees’ salaries must be in full-day increments only, and not for half-days missed.

Preventing potential flu outbreaks

Flu activity typically peaks in January, so the time to prepare for an outbreak is now. Start by becoming educated about preventive steps and planning for a potential outbreak in the workplace.

Several commonsense and cost-effective actions can be utilized to help keep a flu epidemic from breaking out. Urge workers to thoroughly wash their hands and use proper cough and sneeze etiquette. Keep a supply of antibacterial or waterless soap readily available. Provide cleaning supplies for telephones, keyboards and desks to help limit the spread of germs. And of course, encourage those workers under the weather to stay at home in order to reduce the contagion.

Depending on business operations and the potential effect of a widespread flu outbreak among workers, consider taking a more aggressive approach. Some workplace policies may need to be changed or suspended. For instance, an employer may want to temporarily alter its paid-time-off or attendance policy to lessen the chance that sick employees will rush back to work.

Or an employer could permit workers to telecommute or otherwise work from home during an outbreak so that an entire department doesn’t get wiped out for days or even weeks.

Another smart idea is educating employees about the benefits of the flu vaccine. Reports indicate that the latest flu vaccine is a very good match for the viral strains in circulation, which bodes well for the effectiveness of this year’s flu shot. Consider suggesting and even encouraging employees to get a flu shot this season, and even consider bringing in a qualified medical professional to administer shots at the workplace.

Handling weather exposure issues

Now is also a good time to become familiarized with the dangers of weather-related health threats. While the cold-weather months are obviously dangerous to employees spending long hours outside, such as construction workers, they pose perils for other workers as well. Remember, employees may be conscripted to help out with shoveling or other weather-related cleanup activities they do not normally handle.

OSHA requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. Besides protecting workers from expected threats like winter-weather exposure, employers also are obligated to rid their workplaces of winter-related hazards like icy walkways and parking lots.

The environmental conditions that cause cold-related stress are low temperatures, high/cool winds, dampness and contact with cold water. A dangerous situation of rapid heat loss may occur when someone is exposed to high winds and cold temperatures even if they are not technically “freezing.” Prolonged exposure to freezing or cold temperatures can result in serious health problems like trench foot, frostbite, hypothermia and, in extreme cases, death.

Be on the lookout for the following signs of exposure: burning, pain or swelling in the feet; tingling, stinging or aching feeling in the extremities; uncontrolled shivering; an inability to perform complex motor functions; lethargy and slurred speech; and mild confusion. If the employee exhibits the danger signs, emergency help should be called.

Many methods can be used to protect employees from the cold, including protective clothing, engineering controls and common safe work practices. OSHA distributes a free “Cold Stress Card” with tips on handling cold weather. Some include:

• encourage workers to wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions – including layers so that adjustments can be made to changing conditions;

• ensure that workers take frequent short breaks in warm, dry shelters;

• try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day;

• avoid exhaustion or fatigue (because energy is needed to keep muscles warm);

• use the buddy system – work in pairs so that one worker can recognize danger signs;

• drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas or hot chocolate) or alcohol; and

• eat warm, high-calorie foods such as hot pasta dishes.


Rich Meneghello is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, which is dedicated to representing the interests of management. Contact him at or 503-205-8044, or follow him on Twitter – @pdxLaborLawyer.