WASHINGTON -- Most of us enjoy the work we do, and at times it can excite us because of the challenge, the profit, or possibly the benefit it adds to society.
But ultimately, many workers' concerns turn more personal, toward their own health and well-being and how their company treats them in their time of need.
Q. Can an employer be held legally liable if an employee is forced to commute during dangerous weather conditions and the employee is injured? Is there a different standard on this for handicapped employees?
A. This question was posed by a high-tech worker in Northern Virginia who has had Guillain-Barre syndrome, an acute neurological disorder, for most of his life. The disability requires him to wear leg braces.
As treacherous as walking on ice and snow is for able-bodied people, the worker said it is particularly perilous for him. He said that with some forecasts calling for colder, wetter and possibly snowier weather this winter, he is worried about being able to walk from his car in an open-air parking lot to his office.
The worker said that previous employers routinely closed whenever the federal government shut down because of bad weather. But he said his current company handbook states emphatically, "In all situations of bad weather, snow emergencies or federal government closings, the company does not close its business, but has a liberal leave policy for its employees."
It is hard to imagine that any employer "forces" workers to show up in extremely dangerous weather. But that doesn't mean that workers should expect to get paid if the office is open and they don't make it in.
In such cases, numerous companies effectively leave the go-to-work-or-stay-home question up to the workers by offering them liberal leave. That simply means that you can stay home if you choose without clearance from the office, but you'll get charged a vacation day for the privilege.
"We're spoiled here because of the federal government," said Deborah Keary, who answers hundreds of work-related questions each month for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "When they close, a lot of companies just follow suit. Elsewhere in the country, (many businesses) do tend to follow whatever big institution they have, such as a large factory."
Bob Silverstein, director of the Center for the Study and Advancement of Disability Policy in Washington, D.C., said that companies "don't have to provide a paid day off" just because the weather is foul. But Keary said that companies that do close their offices often pay everyone for the day anyway.
Silverstein said if this worker chose not to take a vacation day under his firm's liberal leave policy, provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act might help him. He said it requires employers to make "a reasonable accommodation, a reasonable approach" to make the workplaces accessible to employees with disabilities.
In this instance, Silverstein said the company might do "something as simple as having a wheelchair available" so the worker could get from his car to his office. In addition, he added, the company could make sure a path is cleared from the parking lot. Or it could offer to have co-workers available to help their colleague walk into the office safely.
"Clearly there's no responsibility for a company to get an employee to and from a job," Silverstein said. But he added that if the company owns the parking lot adjacent to its office, the corporation assumes responsibility for helping make sure workers get into the building safely.
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