Should the Coming Solar Eclipse Block out Work?

Prepare for time-off requests, unexpected sick leave, religious accommodations

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie August 14, 2017
Should the Coming Solar Eclipse Block out Work?

​There's March Madness. There's Super Bowl Flu. And now we have Solar Eclipse Fever.

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will arc across the continental United States, which means the moon will move between the sun and earth, casting a lunar shadow that—in some places—darkens the sky, drops temperatures and makes bright stars visible during what's normally broad daylight.

It will be the first time that an eclipse's path of totality exclusively crosses the continental U.S. from coast to coast since June 8, 1918. The path of totality will be a 70-mile-wide ribbon across portions of 14 U.S. states: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

A partial solar eclipse will, however, be visible in every U.S. state.

And with that event comes workplace challenges that typically accompany March Madness—the three-week NCAA men's college basketball tournament each spring—and Super Bowl Flu—the tendency for workers to call in sick the Monday after Super Bowl Sunday.

The eclipse falls on a Monday, a typical workday for most Americans. Some eclipse enthusiasts may simply want to step outside to view the event, which is only supposed to last a few minutes. Others, however, may wish to host parties to celebrate the occasion, or even travel to one of the states where they can view a full eclipse.

"In areas of totality, traffic is predicted to be extremely heavy, with many tourists flocking to those areas to witness the eclipse, so the hope that [such employees] can get back to work shortly after the eclipse may just be wishful thinking," said Sean Ray, an attorney with Barran Liebman in Portland, Ore.

Anticipating heavy traffic from tourists traveling to areas in the path of totality and sudden stops as drivers pull over to look at the eclipse when it happens, the Nebraska Department of Transportation announced that oversized semitrailer trucks will be banned from state highways and I-80 from sundown Aug. 18 to sunrise Aug. 22, reported the Omaha World-Herald.

Treating Pre-Eclipse Fever 

One employer concern that accompanies March Madness and Super Bowl Flu is the time workers may spend on nonwork activities following both events using their workplace computers.

"I doubt [computer use for the eclipse] will approach the issue employers experience with March Madness or other daylong events that result in employees streaming footage for hours at a time," Ray said. "That said, reminding employees of the computer usage policy beforehand may limit the number of employees (or at least the amount of time spent) who use too much work time to check up on the latest eclipse updates."

Richard Meneghello, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Portland, Ore., notes that employers need to be realistic and realize that almost every employee "goofs off for a bit each day and engages in nonproductive activity while at their workstations." 

"Your main focus should be on accountability and productivity," he said. "Are your employees getting their work done in a consistently high-quality manner? Are they meeting deadlines? Are they available when you reach out to them? Are they responsive? Are they getting enough work done each day? If the answer to these questions is a consistent 'yes,' then you shouldn't stress over whether an employee is spending time on NASA's website reading up on the eclipse."

Should You Honor Time-Off Requests?

To the extent possible, an employer should follow its normal practices and procedures regarding requests for time off work to view the eclipse, said Christopher Caiaccio, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Atlanta.

But if all requests can't be granted, "managers should resign themselves that there will likely be more absences than usual on Aug. 21, and they should plan accordingly," he said.

"Employers should take care not to grant requests for time off to view the eclipse, while denying requests for time off for other reasons, which could ultimately lead to discrimination claims," Caiaccio said.

[SHRM members-only policies: Leave Policy: Leave Request Procedure]

Ray said employers should treat unplanned absences the same way they treat other suspected abuses of leave policies. 

"If the employee [calls in sick] on the days he or she was denied time off, it may establish a pattern of abuse that requires the employer's intervention, such as requesting medical verification," he said. "Be cognizant, however, that some state laws, such as in Oregon, require the employer to pay the out-of-pocket cost incurred by the employee in obtaining such a doctor's note. It would be a good idea to remind employees about the proper use of sick leave under the company's policy prior to the eclipse, and that abuse of sick leave will warrant discipline."

Religious Requests Possible

Some cultures and religions find special significance in solar eclipses, according to an advisory by Shirley Lerner, a shareholder in the Minneapolis office of the employment and labor law firm of Littler: At least one commentator suggests that the coming eclipse is a sign of the impending apocalypse, the advisory notes. 

"Employers should be aware of the possibility that employees may request accommodations based on their religious beliefs and practices concerning this cosmic event," the advisory states. "Under federal law, and most state antidiscrimination statutes, employers are forbidden from discrimination based on an employee's … religion. [Federal law], as well as some state laws, require employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of employees, unless doing so would result in undue hardship."

Make It a Team-Building Event

Some employers are embracing the excitement of the eclipse and making plans for co-workers to watch the eclipse together, Ray said. 

"Since the actual eclipse itself will be relatively short, one way to increase [workplace] attendance is to have a company 'eclipse-watching party.' If the employer provides some eclipse-viewing glasses and a spot to watch the eclipse from the workplace or a surrounding area, that may encourage employees to come to work that day, as well as build camaraderie among the workforce when they get to experience such a rare event together."

Another alternative is to give employees one or two hours off of work to view the eclipse, said John Snyder, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in New York City.

"A half a day or whole day off companywide may be unnecessary, as opposed to an hour or two, to balance providing a nice perk to employees and the needs of business," he said. "There are certain industries where a shut-down, particularly a full-day shut-down, would be less than ideal, such as transit, law enforcement, fire [fighting] and similar public services, and health care."

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