What Rights Do Employees Have During Weather Emergencies?

Imagine employees at work trapped in the office due to a winter storm. They post videos online sharing that they can't get out. There's nothing they can do about it. This might sound like the plot from a recent Netflix movie, but it's what happened to many employees just days before Christmas.

Employee Stranded at Work on TikTok

One employee in Buffalo, NY, documented her experience on TikTok. @716cargirl shared a video of extreme winter weather outside her job. Heavy snow piled up, and strong wind gusts made it difficult to see. The caption read, “POV: The management at my job, after not sending us home before the storm got this bad & now we are stuck here.”

She then posted an update. The caption read, “We are still here, and we have food, water, blankets, and pillows. We are staying here until it clears up or we get a break from this wind.”

She continued updating her viewers throughout the night and the next day until she was safe to leave.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Unfortunately, it might not be the last. But it does bring to mind one question. What rights do employees have during weather emergencies when they're already at work?

The Right To Leave

Why don't employees leave when it's still safe? That's a common question. There are many reasons.

Some don't know whether they can legally leave. Others are scared to lose their job or miss their full paycheck.

There are no federal laws in place, and employees' rights will vary.

Michael Elkins, labor and employment lawyer and founder of MLE Law, says that a lot depends on the employment contract.

Employees working at will, meaning there's no contract, “likely have little recourse if employers require them to stay at work during a storm. When it comes to employment at will, the employer is free to alter the terms and conditions of employment, which includes requiring employees to work through storms.”

In this case, as an employee at will, you could lose your job if you leave before your employee releases you.

Elkins continues, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The employer's needs, the workforce's make-up, and the criteria used to determine who works during a storm all play a role.”

The Right To Get Paid

Commenters under @716cargirl's TikTok video said she should stay clocked in. They advised her to do so because she would be paid the whole time. However, the reality is different.

David Schein, Human Resources Consultant and President of Claremont Management Group, states the Department of Labor “requires paying hourly employees for hours worked. So, let's say Jan is stuck at work. She has completed her shift but has no way to get home. Technically, she is not required to receive additional pay since she is no longer on the clock.”

This means that employers can pay overtime to employees stuck at work due to a weather emergency. However, since they're technically no longer working, the company doesn't have to.

Whether the employee is exempt or non-exempt, also comes into play. Non-exempt employees are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours per week, while exempt employees technically aren't.

One of the perks of being an exempt employee is even if they stop working early, they'll still get paid. David Schein continues, “They get their normal salary as long as they do the employer's work on whatever schedule they have. Even if they cannot do their work due to the weather emergency, they should still be drawing a paycheck. That is the advantage of being an exempt employee.”

What To Do in The Future

This situation will happen again, whether it's a winter storm or other weather emergencies.

What should employees do if they find themselves in this situation?

Before it happens, take a look at your employee handbook. Are there rules in place if you find yourself in this position? See if there are state or local regulations. Talk to your employee about the expectations if this happens, just so you're clear.

Schein offers clear advice. “In short, the employer is not running a prison, and employees may leave if they wish to do so.”

This doesn't mean there won't be fallout, ranging from reprimand to job loss or pay loss. You have to consider if the consequences are worth it. If you have children or pets at home and don't want to risk the safety of your vehicle or your life, leaving work is always an option, even if you don't have permission. Hopefully, as an employee, your employer will make a reasonable decision to let you go before things get out of hand.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.