Firms size up 'climate leave'

Notion of paid time off fir extrene weather finding traction

Even the workplace has to adapt to the warming world. As climate change creates more intense storms, companies have started preparing for work disruptions because of extreme weather.

In a sign of the times, Fog Creek, a software company based in New York City, recently announced that it would provide up to five days of paid "climate leave" for employees who can't work because of extreme weather events. If there's a declared state of emergency, the company will give affected employees even more time.

During previous hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, the company let employees take time off on a case-by-case basis. One Miami-based employee had to evacuate during Hurricane Irma, and the storm Sandy displaced most of the company's workers back in 2012. Throughout the storms, Fog Creek continued to pay its staff.

But after seeing reports of people losing their jobs after missing work during this year's particularly devastating hurricane season, Anil Dash, Fog Creek's chief executive officer, wanted to formalize paid time off for his workers. The company, which fights for talent with bigger technology firms, such as Google and Facebook, offers its 35 employees generous benefits. Fog Creek claims that it was one of the first to offer free lunch to its workers.

"There's no reason not to make your employees feel secure about this," Dash said. Putting the policy in writing, he said, takes it from a "good intention" to a "promise." The company hopes its announcement encourages others to implement similar policies.

It appears to be working. Stack Overflow, another Manhattan-based technology company with more than 250 employees, will consider the policy, said Dash, who sits on the board. The company says it hasn't formalized its policy yet, but it accommodates employees affected by climate-related occurrences.

Cylinder, a California design consulting firm, announced that it will also offer the benefit. Adarsh Pandit, a managing partner at the firm, said the leave is "planned" but not yet implemented. Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, a coding school, said he sent the idea over to his human resources department.

Like many voluntary benefits, climate leave will likely be reserved for the most elite workers.

"Am I seeing companies want to create a specific disaster leave? We're not," said Julie Norville, who heads up absence management at Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm. Organizations are, however, rethinking leave policies for a broader array of situations. "People need more time away to care for themselves and their families," Norville said. "This leave falls into that theme."

Employees have very few job protections from acts of nature. Employment laws "weren't written to anticipate a natural disaster," said Phillip Russell, a Tampa-based employment lawyer. Even Florida, which regularly gets pounded by storms, has no federal, state, or local laws to protect workers' jobs if they don't report to work during natural disasters, according to several employment lawyers.

A close reading of other workplace regulations might provide some ad-hoc protections. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, prohibits employers from sending their workers into "imminent danger."

"If you're requiring employees to work on a construction site in the middle of a storm, that would be an OSHA violation," explained Russell. "Even though you can't find anything in OSHA standards that says, 'Thou shall not work in a storm.'"

Reports from Florida during Irma found that despite an evacuation order from the governor, some employers pressured workers into showing up for work. In a survey of 134 people, more than half of respondents said their employers threatened to fire or discipline them for not showing up to work during Hurricane Irma, according to a study by workers' rights organization Central Florida Jobs with Justice. A librarian said he was told to man the building as a shelter or risk losing his job; a janitor who worked in a nursing home said she was threatened with her job unless she went in the night before the hurricane.

While some companies might not fire employees for failing to appear during a disaster, many workers have to worry about their paychecks. Employers don't have to pay salaried employees after more than a week of closures. Hourly workers may not get paid at all. While companies like Fog Creek pay workers even if they can't work, other employers may require their staffs to take vacation days or other accrued time off during an emergency.

"I don't blame anyone for feeling like, 'I don't trust if my employer is going to do the right thing,'" Dash said. "If you don't put it in writing, they don't know."

SundayMonday Business on 11/19/2017

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