THE BLOG

Nuisance or Catastrophe? How you Feel About Snow May Depend on Your Job

02/25/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

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There's nothing like a little snow to throw the whole precarious balance of work and life right off its metaphorical fulcrum. Ok, a lot of snow.

Here in New York City, we've had our small share of shoveling, and a lot of cringingly frigid weather of the kind that makes city officials warn ominously that people should just stay inside. But it's nothing compared to what's been happening in New England, where record-breaking snowfalls have been shuttering schools and workplaces, closing roads and crippling public transportation.

We all know what happens to kids in this situation -- Yippee! Snow days! But what about the grown-ups who are supposed to be working? What's their fate?

As is so often the case, it depends quite a bit on the type of work they do. There is -- as is so often the case -- a tremendous divide between salaried, higher income workers and hourly, lower-income ones.

For example, if your workplace is closed because of the weather, and you're lucky enough to draw an annual salary (rather than working for an hourly wage), the law requires that you be paid , although your employer is perfectly within their rights to ask you to use your vacation, personal or sick time toward that pay. But there is no such protection for you if you're an hourly worker -- for these employees a closed workplace quite often means a non-existent paycheck.

To widen the divide still more, these days many knowledge workers can avoid even needing to use a vacation day by simply working from home when the office is closed -- in fact, they are often required to do so. This, of course, is not an option for the millions who have service or retail jobs, or even for many of those in administrative support positions.

But what if your workplace is open?

Things get murkier for everyone when the job is there waiting -- perhaps despite the storm or perhaps after the worst of the weather has passed -- but you can't get to it, because roads remain impassable, public transit is down or -- even more commonly -- schools are still closed.

Unlike the case of actual office closings, there's no law to guide employers in this situation. It's up to their own discretion. But once again, it seems clear that salaried office workers fare the best. Many of my own clients allow employees to stay home if they need to, using paid-time-off days of one sort or another, or simply working from home; many also have subsidized back-up child care programs employees can make use of to get to work.

A quick (unscientific) survey of articles on the web demonstrates that this is fairly typical: though office workers may struggle with snow days, the majority of their employers are pretty supportive. (I will admit I stumbled across a few policies that struck me as odd, though. The CFO of a regional New England United Way explained to a reporter that on a recent snowy day, employees who stayed home because schools were closed were asked to take a personal or vacation day. But those who stayed home on the very same day because they felt it would be difficult or unsafe to commute to work were paid as usual. Hmmm...)

It's another story for low-income workers

Weather emergencies are something else entirely for those who work hourly jobs; for them, missing work can be much more problematic. Even if the kids don't have school, even if the trains aren't running, many of these employees risk loss of pay or worse if they can't show up. Al Jazeera America describes one woman who works as a hotel maid in Long Island, earning, she says, less than minimum wage. Even in good weather she commutes an hour each way to her job. But following a recent snowstorm that had politicians urging everyone to stay off the roads, she stocked up on diapers, left her baby with its father and set off to brave the trip. "My boss is making me work tonight and tomorrow night," the article quotes her as saying, "If I didn't go in, I would lose my job."

Many more who don't necessarily risk losing their jobs may face devastating financial consequences for missing work. A recent Boston Globe article relates the story of one woman who lost two day's pay when Boston public transportation shut down -- as it has done numerous times this winter -- because of bad weather. On a number of other days, she was docked for arriving late to her job at Dunkin' Donuts because of bad roads and limited service on the bus and train she takes to get from her house to the babysitter's to work. She considered taking a taxi, instead, but calculated each roundtrip would cost her more than a day's pay. The 33-year-old woman, a mother of two, is not sure how she'll cover her rent this month.

Another woman in Boston, a security guard, missed a day of work because she couldn't get her car out of her unplowed street -- and the trains weren't running. On several other days, she spent nearly half her take-home pay taking cabs there and back. And on yet another occasion public transit slow-downs made her 45 minutes late -- another financial loss. Her particular worry is the electric bill, which she's already behind in paying.

Luckily, there are some happier stories

Some businesses do pay their hourly workers when they're closed, and sometimes even when they're open but the employees have good reasons for not being able to make it to work. An article in the New Hampshire Union Leader describes how a local medical center allowed those employees whose jobs were not on the center's hospital side to apply vacation, personal or even sick time to a day off, if they chose. Hundreds took advantage of the policy and stayed home in a recent storm. At the same time, the medical center made arrangements for dozens of hospital-based workers, from physicians to housekeepers, to stay overnight. According to the article, they were paid for the time they were sleeping, as well as the time they worked -- although I suspect those that were salaried didn't get paid anything extra.

Similarly, a hospital in Maine made a list of essential employees ahead of a blizzard, putting them up at a nearby hotel and sending hospital security to transport them to and fro.

Then there are the "small and growing number of companies" who have decided to apply the carrot, rather than the stick. Instead of docking employees who can't make it in, they reward those who can, with "an extra vacation day or a small bonus," according to an article in the Boston Globe. Unfortunately, the article cites only one example of this phenomenon, a nursing home that paid a bonus to employees who were able to cover for their colleagues during a recent storm, but it would be most interesting to know where else this is being done, and how.

I wish I could close this piece on a high note, but I'm afraid rewards for showing up seem to be a lot less common than penalties for not doing so. And so, instead, I'll close with this telling quote, from Laura Clawson of the Daily Kos:

It's one more demonstration of how deeply inequality runs in the United States, that the snow day giving rise to thousands of discussions of best snow-day foods, hot chocolate jokes, and Netflix marathons among some people is forcing others to scramble for child care and make hard decisions about budgets and the risk of losing a day of pay or even a job.

[Note: This just in -- another sobering account, this time in the New York Times, of the devastation being caused by the current weather in Boston -- particularly for working parents and hourly workers.]

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.