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Winter Weather FAQs—From Preparation to Compliance

Winter Weather FAQs—From Preparation to Compliance

The holiday season—with its gingerbread and gifts and cozy family gatherings—is behind us. But we still have to get through the rest of winter. And that can come with several less exciting disruptions to your organization. 

With severe weather brewing, your teams need to be prepared in case of a sudden shutdown. Read on for answers to the most common HR questions about creating an emergency response plan, with special attention to severe weather. 

 

Why Should HR Plan for Severe Weather?

Winter Storm Elliott buried huge swaths of the nation in snow and ice in late December 2022. But if your organization is in the South or somewhere else with a mild climate, you may think severe weather prep isn’t worth your time.

Some winters, BerniePortal’s headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, hardly sees any snow. But in spring 2020, a tornado swept through Nashville. Several team members’ homes were affected, and we had to shut down after losing power at headquarters. So no matter where your organization is located, it’s crucial to be prepared in case severe weather does come your way. A good response plan has many advantages:

  • Save lives. In December 2021, a tornado destroyed an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, and six lives were lost. It only takes one emergency for your employees’ health and safety to be compromised. Making a plan now will help you act faster if and when a winter storm strikes.
  • Keep your organization running. While your plan should start with keeping employees safe, it shouldn’t end there. Strategizing how to keep your business operating—or safely reopen sooner if you have to shut down—can minimize lost time and revenue, saving your organization money as well.
  • Stay compliant. A concrete emergency action plan for severe weather can help you stay compliant with federal and state labor laws, including OSHA regulations about workplace safety and FLSA guidance on how to compensate team members during disruptions. 

From winter storms to tornadoes to pandemics, an emergency response plan offers these three benefits for any sort of unexpected disruption or emergency. 

 

 

How Should HR Prepare in Advance for Severe Weather?

1. Write your winter weather policy. Before a storm begins, your team should already know what to do in a weather emergency. Consider the following questions as you develop your policy:
  • At what point will operations switch to remote?
  • At what point will operations shut down?
  • How much notice should employees expect before an inclement weather closure?
  • What will happen if a storm strikes during work hours?

Remember, if your industry can’t work remotely at all, decide how and when to make the call to shut down during a storm. 

2. Communicate the policy in advance. Include it somewhere team members can easily refer to it at any time. That could mean including the severe weather policy in your Culture Guide or employee handbook. Or, if you use an all-in-one HRIS like BerniePortal, you can house it in the Compliance feature alongside other postings. You can even require employees to sign off acknowledging they’ve reviewed it.

3. Train your team. All employees should know where to go and what to do immediately if severe weather strikes. And a few designated leaders should be trained to guide the whole team. At small to midsize businesses, it’s likely that this responsibility falls to you. 

4. Practice. Hold regular fire, tornado, and lockdown drills, and for winter weather, be sure to practice—or at least review—the action plan each year before winter sets in.

 

How Can HR Keep Employees Safe in Winter Weather? 

The most common winter weather event is a winter storm, which typically leads to power outages, icy roads, and downed trees and power lines. In this case, use multiple communication channels to let employees know whether, when, and how they’re expected to report to work. 

As you make decisions, remember to err on the side of safety. If possible, you might consider shifting operations to remote work so team members don’t have to navigate treacherous roads to commute to the office. If that’s not possible, be cautious about remaining open. 

Every organization is different, and so is every storm, so don’t make the decision to open or close lightly. As important as it is to keep your operations moving, it’s even more important to keep your team safe. 

 

How Can HR Keep Operations Moving During a Disruption? 

Once employees are safe, the next priority should be minimizing the impact to the organization itself. To help with this, you’ll need to create a business continuity plan, or BCP. 

This document includes all the information your organization needs to keep operating during a disruptive event—from a winter storm to a cyber attack. It’s designed to help minimize interruptions during a crisis, which supports your business’s bottom line by helping you avoid losing customers to better-prepared competitors.

A BCP not only explains logistics like how to run the generator and which employees are essential—it also includes communication with external partners and customers. A good BCP will have a customer support checklist that prepares you to let clients know how the disruption will affect them, and for how long. These effects can include delayed deliveries, slower response times, out-of-office replies, and more.

Larger organizations often have their IT departments create the BCP. But at small to midsize businesses, this responsibility can fall to HR. Your BCP should include at least these four parts:

  1. Contact information for relevant people at the beginning
  2. Instructions on how to use the plan, including who will be involved and when the plan will be implemented
  3. The actual steps to be taken in an emergency (and who will take them)
  4. Instructions for when and how to test and revise the plan

Creating a BCP can be time-consuming, but it will be worth it when an emergency strikes and you already know what to do—you just have to follow the plan’s instructions.

 

How Can Organizations Recover After a Winter Storm? 

  1. Assess the damage. Once it’s safe to return to your physical location, inspect the property carefully for signs of safety risks to employees or customers. 
  2. Check your insurance policy. If the storm damaged your building or destroyed valuable supplies like technology or equipment, call your insurance agent right away—before you start cleaning up or moving things around.
  3. Ensure safe accessibility to the work site. That may include shoveling snow, clearing ice, or checking the functionality of heating and water systems. Even if you work in a building that didn’t see any damage, you still want to make sure people can get to that building safely before you ask employees—or customers—to return.

 

How Can Organizations Stay OSHA-Compliant During Severe Weather? 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is a U.S. government agency dedicated to ensuring health and safety standards for employee working conditions. OSHA’s mission is to help prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.  

By law, employers must provide their workers with a workplace that doesn’t have hazards and must follow all OSHA safety and health standards. Employers must find and correct any known safety and health issues in the workplace. And they must eliminate hazards by making any possible changes in working conditions rather than relying on personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, earplugs, etc. 

In the context of a winter storm, the work mentioned above to keep employees safe is a good starting point in maintaining OSHA compliance. If an accident or injury does occur, report it via Form 300A

OSHA has also released a detailed handbook for emergencies and evacuations that you can consult as you create your emergency response plan. They have an overall winter weather guide as well, which is especially helpful if you have employees who work outside.

 

How Can Organizations Stay FLSA-Compliant During Severe Weather? 

The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, outlines which employees must be compensated during severe weather based on their exempt or nonexempt status.

Exempt, or salaried, workers are paid a regular rate regardless of the number of hours they work, so as long as they’re ready, willing, and able to do their jobs, you still have to pay them under the FLSA—even if you were closed.

Nonexempt, or hourly, employees technically do not have to be compensated for any hours not worked during a closure. If operations totally shut down and hourly team members did not work, you don’t have to pay them. 

However, consider at least partial pay for these employees as a gesture of goodwill—especially if your organization employs both exempt and nonexempt workers. If it’s possible for your budget, compensating all team members while you’re closed for a winter storm can help you show your talent that you care about their financial well-being, which can be a great tactic for retention

If that’s not possible, you might allow these employees to make up lost hours after you reopen, or approve overtime to help mitigate the lost income. These strategies can help you build a healthy company culture that avoids resentment among some employees who did not get paid while others did.

 

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While an effective response to an emergency is a complex task, two simple concepts can guide your entire process: safety is priority one, and preparation is key. If you keep those two things in mind as you plan, you’ll be on track for a thorough, effective, and compliant emergency response plan for whatever storms come your way. 

 

Additional Resources

You can stay informed, educated, and up-to-date with important HR topics using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credits
  • Resource Library—tools, templates, and checklists on an extensive list of HR topics
  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop shop for HR industry news
  • HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics

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