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When Winter Weather Makes Commuting Dangerous

A group of cars driving down a snow covered highway.

​Winter's almost here, and your company is in a region that usually gets a lot of snow. Some of your employees have long commutes and are wary of driving icy roads—even if your company remains open during or following a heavy snowfall.

Should you accommodate those employees? And if so, how?

Employers may assume that when workers take jobs in regions known for receiving a lot of snow, those workers realize ahead of time the challenges they might face in getting to work in wintry conditions. If they don't think they can handle the commute, perhaps they shouldn't take those jobs.

Others say this approach can be insensitive to employees' safety in treacherous weather, and employers should consider ways to accommodate workers.

Sarah is an HR manager in Louisville, Ky., where the average annual snowfall is 12.5 inches. That's not a lot compared to other states, but it may seem like a lot to her employees who commute more than 45 minutes each way.

"Some employees are just not comfortable or confident driving in snowy conditions," said Sarah, who asked that her last name and company name not to be used. "When you hire an employee, you're hiring the person, not their address. As companies create their policies, flexibility—as allowed by operations—should be considered."

Trains, Subways—Even Hotel Rooms

Twenty-six states get an average of 20 inches or more of snow a year, according to the National Climatic Data Center. While those states may have the equipment and manpower to plow roads so people can get to work, rural roads that cut through mountain passes, for instance, can be especially tricky to navigate in snowy weather. Even urban traffic can be stopped dead if an unexpectedly heavy snowfall overwhelms local plowing resources.

"Even though we're in a metropolitan suburb, sometimes the roads are still awful enough that people don't want to risk it, so [we leave that] between the employee and their supervisor," Sarah said. "Our employees can take PTO [paid time off], come in, work from home, or a mix of all three depending on weather conditions. If we close the office, all nonexempt employees are paid for half the day, and they can use PTO for the remaining hours."

At Sarah's company, most work can be done remotely, but not every company has that option. [For more guidance on how to keep working through storms, see Inclement Weather Policy Should Factor in Safety, Pay from SHRM Online.]

If alternative transportation is available, such as trains or subways, employers can offer to subsidize fares for workers who don't want to drive on snowy roads.

Sarah knows of a company that couldn't afford to have all workers stay home when a snowstorm was forecast. The company asked for volunteers to work before and after the storm and helped pay for nearby hotel rooms for those employees who signed up.

"It can be a workable option," she said. "If they were not staffed, their customers would have been at a disadvantage. I would expect a company to pay at least a portion, if not all, of the hotel bill."

Sara Hope is director of HR services at Clover HR, an HR agency in Birmingham, England. She knows of employers that have paid for hotel rooms for staff when bad weather made driving dangerous and working remotely wasn't an option. But this is "likely to be a last resort in extreme situations … after looking at alternatives such as closing the business early or running it with reduced staff."

Putting staff in a hotel, she said, "could lead to disruptions to the employee's home life, for example creating issues relating to the care of dependents."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Do we have to pay employees when we close our business due to inclement weather?]

Nakisha Smith is an HR manager for a company with worksites in Florida and Minnesota, which gets an average of 54 inches of snow a year. She said she considers it "pretty unfair [for an employer] to presume that employees have complete control of the proximity of home and work.

"People may need to reside in a certain area because of their children's school, their spouse's employment or other family commitments," said Smith, who asked that her company name not be used. "And while many of us dream of short commute times, that isn't always practical or realistic."

While Smith's company doesn't have a telecommuting policy, it encourages managers to support workers during extreme weather. During the 2018 hurricane season, her company's Orlando office was shuttered for a week. One employee was unable to commute to work for two weeks due to damaged roads and bridges throughout the area.

"I believe that employees are best able to discern if it is safe for them to travel," Smith said. "We'd much rather our employees remain safe than to insist they drive into the office."


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