Once the fun of the holiday season ends, all that's left is the weather and everything that comes with it — coughs that last too long, chapped hands, fevers, biting winds and streets slick with ice. It's not uncommon for members to get sick or find that outside forces, from snowstorms to unsafe driving conditions, are limiting their working availability.
Weather and illness can make winter unpredictable, but as a union leader, you can help members with preparing for flu season and poor weather. As temperatures dip across the country, educating members about their rights and sharing strategies they can implement ahead of time will help make the season easier to manage.
Start by encouraging members to familiarize themselves with their rights based on the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and with their employer's inclement weather policy, if they have one. Companies aren't required to have an inclement weather policy, but many do.
According OSHA, anyone who operates a vehicle and transports people, hazardous materials or cargo for business reasons has the right to refuse to drive if they fear for their safety. That means an employer can't discipline or fire these employees if they refuse to drive in bad weather. That's not the case for all other workers, though. If an employer doesn't deem the weather to be dangerous, and another type of worker refuses to show up at work, then that employee can be disciplined or even fired.
But what if an employer decides to close because of the weather? In that case, nonexempt employees aren't entitled to pay if they're not working. A company, however, can choose to let hourly workers use their paid time off for the day so they don't lose out on money earned.
Make sure members keep in mind that some policies may only apply if the weather is so bad that a state of emergency is declared. In other cases, the responsibility is on the member to help prevent absences due to winter weather or lessen the impact if they must miss work. To prepare for winter, members should:
- Winterize their car, including switching their tires to winter tires.
- Make a plan to get coverage if they can't be there for a shift due to poor weather.
- Consider setting aside some money in case they miss out on pay.
Illness is inevitable, especially in the winter months. The average adult has two or three colds a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A majority of workers say they go to work even if they have a cold or the flu, but they risk getting co-workers sick and underperforming on the job as they manage symptoms.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible workers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a serious illness with their job protected. Additionally, most employers offer paid sick days — but there are no laws that say employers have to pay sick leave or give sick days.
Make sure each member knows their employer's sick leave policy. If they get sick days but have run out of them for the year when they come down with the flu, encourage them to speak with their employer. Many employers will be sympathetic and will let a worker stay home sick without consequences — though possibly unpaid — so the rest of the team can stay healthy.
Suggest to members that they should put strategies in place to begin preparing for flu season, including:
- Talking to their doctor about whether they should get a flu shot.
- Washing their hands often and thoroughly.
- Getting plenty of sleep, exercising and eating well to strengthen their immune system.
Navigating winter in the workplace or on a worksite doesn't always go smoothly. Expect to see occasional tension between members and their employers. As a trustee, you're well positioned to forge connections between the two and help them find a middle ground, whether you're discussing how to approach pay during inclement weather or managing a personal clash stemming from a winter work absence. By educating members and employers about the unpredictability of winter, you reduce the chance of coming up against these conflicts — and help to keep everyone healthy and safe.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.