Storm puts employees in tough spot about going to work

Howling wind. Snow clogged streets.


drivers who can’t drive. What a great day to stay home.

But … the boss is at work. Customers or clients might be at the door. Some of your co-workers will make it in. And who wants to burn another vacation day or, worse, take an unpaid day off?

When conditions scream “Take a snow day!” many workers struggle with the decision. Even when employers say they stress safety first, there can be pressure to show up if the workplace is open.

As Kansas City Mayor Sly James said Monday, authorities can suggest — but not order — businesses to close in the interest of public safety. Fact is, the wheels of commerce will keep turning, even if some are stuck in the snow.

And, like it or not, some workers have to work.

“That’s why the best places to work talk about these decisions ahead of time,” said Leigh Branham, a employee engagement consultant at Keeping The People in Overland Park. “They know who are mission-critical employees and they know how those people can get to work.”

Area hospitals are good at that. They bring in cots or reserve hotel rooms and have transportation procedures to get and keep essential employees on site. St. Luke’s Hospital, for example, housed more than 300 employees in last week’s storm and expected to do the same if conditions warranted this week.

Even best-laid plans can run into trouble, though. Kansas City Power Light usually puts some mission-critical workers in hotel rooms during big storms, but a big convention filled downtown Kansas City hotel rooms this week. The utility had to tell some employees to bring sleeping bags for overnight stays at work.

More than two-thirds of the utility’s 3,000 employees are expected to work — some pulling 16-hour shifts to help cover the 47 counties in the utility’s service territory.

“There’s a lot of logistics involved,” said Katie McDonald, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Alternative to putting workers up overnight, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City beefed up its information technology systems ahead of the storm so that 1,200 workers were instructed to work remotely without computer systems overloading or other connection problems.

Burns McDonnell, which has earned a national “best places to work” award, told employees to use discretion about coming to work today, but did plan to be open for business. Spokesman Roger Dick said the engineering firm has tried to make it easier for people to work from home with a new computer access network.

As for whether employees might feel subtle pressure to come to work, Dick said, “As a company, we emphasize safety. I can’t imagine some individual feeling pressured to come in just because a couple of their co-workers did.”

Still, for many non mission-critical workers, snow day decisions are tough.

“How committed are you to your job?” said Lee Bolman, leadership professor at UMKC’s Bloch School of Business. “How vulnerable do you feel if you don’t show up? What kind of other pressures, like child care options, do you have? What’s your commute like?”

Kerry O’Connor, spokeswoman for St. Luke’s, said health care professionals often showed above-and-beyond commitment to their jobs.

For example, a metastatic cancer patient was discharged Thursday without enough supplies, “so the nurse had to walk six blocks to take her supplies and show her how to take care of her wound,” O’Connor said.

Differing demands

For most workers, the first order of snow-day business is to check in with the employer. Often, in this service economy, there’s scant productivity loss if employees are able to work well from home.

The work pressure is different for manufacturing and retail operations. Most major manufacturers, like Kansas City’s two auto assembly plants, have regularly updated hotlines for employees to call when bad weather hits. Those recordings relay shift-by-shift decisions.

Employers, in general, present three options: Temporarily close. Open with a skeletal staff. Tell employees who can to work remotely.

Last week and again Monday, many workers heard messages that certain shifts were shut down until roads were passable again.

Many other workers heard that they could take paid or unpaid days off if they chose. That was the situation at Hallmark Cards’ headquarters.

A typical policy, from CBIZ Human Capital Services EFL Associates, said:

“In the event that the building is open during inclement weather, but you do not feel comfortable driving, please work with your management regarding scheduling vacation for the day. Please also work with our management for procedures specific to your area.”

Staying home is a no-brainer for workers who have the luxury of remote access.

Others, including hourly workers and part-timers, struggle with a financial hit: If they don’t show up, they don’t get paid. That’s especially true for restaurant and retail workers. Needing a paycheck is a powerful incentive to struggle in.

“For some people in this economy a day or two without pay adds to the catastrophe,” Bolman said.

Gary Abram, managing partner of the Kansas City-based HCap managing consulting firm, said he’s noticed that employee loyalty has declined since employers began using mass layoffs as cost controls.

“Snow days have almost become litmus tests of how people think about their work,” Abram said. “There’s been an evolution so that many people need a bigger rationale for making the sacrifice.”

In other words, he suggested, the more loyal workers feel to their employers, the harder they’ll try to work rather than take the day off.

Employers often have a tough act balancing worker comfort with business needs and customer demand.

Dan Walsh, executive vice president of Cramer, an office furniture company, met with employees Monday afternoon.

“I just told them to use their best judgment (about driving to work today),” Walsh said.

Just in case, the company set up a system to funnel calls to a single message that workers could access from home and take turns returning customer calls.

“With only 20 shipping days in February, if we lose three days we have lost significant revenue,” Walsh said.

The Star’s Kevin Collison, Steve Everly, Joyce Smith and Mara Rose Williams contributed to this report.