Work-from-home requirements in bad weather

Some employees have laptops, some don't

Tim Mitchell

Question:If some employees are provided with laptops, can they be required to work from home when the office is closed due to bad weather, while employees in similar positions who haven’t been given such equipment don’t have to work? If the employees are paid by the hour, are there risks to reducing the hours and therefore pay of the latter group because of bad weather?

Answer: The decision to close a business for the day due to bad weather rests solely with the employer. When faced with severe weather conditions, an employer has to balance the disadvantages of losing a day’s work against requiring employees to commute in potentially hazardous conditions. Whether employees are required to work remotely or telecommute, and whether employees will be compensated for days when the office is closed due to inclement weather, are largely issues that are determined in an employment contract or in workplace policies.

Generally, an employer will not be required to pay employees for days that the office is closed. The foundation of an employment relationship is that an employee trades her services to an employer in exchange for compensation. Subject to certain exceptions (such as a written policy, agreement or the provision of a collective agreement), as long as the employer informs employees before they report to work, the employer is not obligated to pay them on days when they are not providing services due to an employer’s decision to close the office for the day. 

However, when an employer does not provide sufficient notice of an office closure, it may still have to pay some compensation in accordance with provincial employment standards legislation. For example, under the Employment Standards Regulation (Alberta), most employees must be paid at least three hours of pay at the minimum wage each time they report to work even if they are sent home after less than three hours.

Overall, an employer should set clear guidelines as to whether employees who are provided with laptops are required to work from home when the office is closed due to bad weather. That decision may, in large part, depend on the type of position and responsibilities of a given employee. Importantly, employees that are not required to work for the day are not entitled to compensation (unless the employee reports to work prior to the office closure as described above). Further, employees are not entitled to pay merely because other employees have the opportunity to work.

Notwithstanding, employers should be aware that restricting the ability of some employees to work at home (and thus, receiving pay when the office is closed) may give rise to complaints of favouritism or low employee morale. Thus, at a minimum, employers should develop a severe weather or business closure policy addressing the following questions:

• Will employees be paid if severe weather prevents them from coming to work? 

• If not, can employees use their vacation (or other paid time off) to offset the loss?

• Which employees are/will be required to work from home?

• How will the closure be communicated to employees?

• If the business is closed for the day, will the employees receive any compensation?

The policy should be uniformly applied and the employer’s exceptions in inclement weather circumstances regarding work and compensation should be communicated to employees. 

Tim Mitchell practices management-side labour and employment law with McLennan Ross LLP in Calgary. He can be reached at (403) 303-1791 or tmitchell@mross.com.

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