Winter weather advisory: snow, gusty winds, ice, and bitter cold are hitting much of our nation, with the Polar Vortex bringing wind chills of 50 below or worse this week in parts of the Midwest.
How should churches address inclement weather issues for their employees? And are employees entitled to pay for time missed due to bad weather?
As an overarching human resources matter, caution and common sense must be practiced when it comes to inclement weather situations. No employer should expect employees to risk life and limb to get to the office. It may be prudent to cancel or postpone program activities, too. Watching the weather forecast and staying attentive to public service announcements (e.g., school closings, public transit schedule adjustments) should help church leaders make responsible decisions. Remote-working options can help as well, with employees handling tasks from home through available technology.
With respect to employers’ pay obligations, three key factors apply: (a) whether the employees are “exempt” or “nonexempt” under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and comparable state laws, (b) whether the employer is open for business, and (c) whether money matters more than morale.
The FLSA distinguishes between exempt and nonexempt employees. To be classified as “exempt,” an employee must (a) be paid a salary, (b) of at least $455 per week, and (c) have certain skills or duties (e.g. executives, professionals, or administrative employees who regularly exercise discretion over significant matters—this is known as the “white-collar exemption”; but also note how the “ministerial exception” plays a role for certain positions).
All other employees are considered “nonexempt,” and are entitled to overtime pay and other legal protections.
On inclement weather days, exempt employees are slightly better off than nonexempt employees. The key difference is that nonexempt employees are entitled to pay only if they work, unless the business is closed.
Exempt employees, on the other hand, are entitled to pay regardless of the circumstances. One common mistake churches make is to improperly deduct pay for exempt employees, essentially giving them unpaid leave for missed work. At least theoretically, a risk may then arise that employees may be reclassified as nonexempt based on such a pay modification. That’s why it’s better for churches to make certain that exempt employees receive their regularly scheduled compensation.
Some churches also may consider requiring both types of employees to take paid leave (e.g., vacation and personal days) as a result of an office closure. The legal considerations aside, requiring church employees to take paid leave days or deducting their pay due to inclement weather may prove very unpopular. Accordingly, churches are well-advised to adopt an inclement weather policy providing clear guidelines addressing potential use of paid leave, pay deductions for nonexempt employees’ missed work, and perhaps even extra paid “snow,” “cold,” or other inclement weather days when circumstances warrant such a benefit.
Sally Wagenmaker is a partner at Wagenmaker & Oberly, a law firm serving nonprofit organizations across the nation with offices in Chicago and Charleston, South Carolina. She provides legal counsel in corporate, tax, employment, and real estate matters for clients, including churches and other religious organizations, social service providers, and schools. Sally is the current president and board chair of Christian Legal Society.