work from home employees to use time off in case of power outs?
October 28, 2020 7:45 AM   Subscribe

My spouse's employer recently held an online meeting where their new policy of having employees currently working from home use their own time off (vacation/sick etc) to cover time lost because of power outages at their home due to weather. the employer is not covering power, internet or equipment for the work done from home. This doesn't seem right. Is it? (You are not my lawyer.)
posted by aesop to Work & Money (18 answers total)
I worked (from home) for a place where if the power outage lasted longer than X amount of time, they made you take the day or the half-day off unless it was in a disaster area where power went down for everyone. They even kept your address handy and checked the little power company map to make absolutely sure you had an outage and would keep checking it throughout the day to make sure you weren't slacking and signed right back on when the power clicked back on.

I don't know the legalities but it's out there.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:51 AM on October 28, 2020

My sense from reading similar scenarios (even more similar in the comments section) on Ask A Manager is that this is probably legal, but also shortsighted and demoralizing.
posted by rawralphadawg at 7:53 AM on October 28, 2020 [16 favorites]

I don't think it seems right. But it would probably help to know where in the world you are. Generally accepted employment practices differ very much between countries.

Your spouse might like to look into the possibilities of union membership.
posted by rd45 at 7:57 AM on October 28, 2020

replying to rd45's query about location - We're in New Jersey and it's a school.
posted by aesop at 8:00 AM on October 28, 2020

Is making up the hours once the power is back on an option? That's what I did when I lost power for an afternoon over the summer.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 8:06 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I work for a state university in the US and this sounds normal - even if people were working onsite and the site closed, if you want to get paid and can’t work from elsewhere you’re using vacation (not sick leave, by the book). A union at my workplace negotiated for a few days of inclement weather leave annually to cover such situations.
posted by momus_window at 8:08 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

In general, employers can have any requirements they want on employees. There are a few exceptions - notably, they have to pay for personal protective equipment (PPE). Your situation may make your job non-viable, but it's probably not illegal. This is roughly corollary to an employer mandating you to wear clothes at your work. They do not reimburse you for your clothes and if you accidentally tear a hole in your clothes, it's up to you to replace them.
posted by saeculorum at 8:24 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's probably legal but like rawralphadawg said demoralizing.

Do you mean they're going to nickle and dime if your power goes out for an hour or is this more aimed at if there's a multiday outage? The latter is more reasonable. It's kind of like if you were snowed in so badly that you couldn't get to the office in normal-times.

If this is a substantial concern for you, you can get battery packs (that are inanely called solar generators) with enough capacity to run a laptop, access point, and cable modem (or similar devices) for an entire day or more for about $250 these days. They can be charged by driving them over to a friend's place that has power or by a car if you get really desperate. Or you can get a generator that's capable of doing that for not too much these days.

At least if you're lucky, the key parts of the communication infrastructure will stay up even if there's a regional power failure because they tend to have UPSes or generators at the critical parts. My cable modem and router have a dedicated UPS and the network stays up even there's a regional power outage.

There may also be some wiggle room from your husband's boss, depending on what the position is. If there's work he can reasonably do offline, it may be that no one has to know that there was a power failure. If it's something like teaching online classes, obviously that would be noticeable.

Or, given that we're unlikely to be able to travel for at least a year, he might just shrug and take the day off and read a book or whatever.
posted by Candleman at 8:35 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sorry to threadsit- I would disagree that "This is roughly corollary to an employer mandating you to wear clothes at your work" since what the employee is providing is crucial to providing the service and is not a mere personal effect in this instance. The service can literally not be supplied except via materials supplied and paid for by the employee, in lieu of the infastructure and services which would in normal circumstances be provided by the employer at their cost. On top of this additional and unusual burden is added the responsibility of maintaining the employers' service at the employee's cost, or to substitute this with paid time off. (I realize simply being annoyed about the issue doesn't in itself change the rules or current accepted practice, & I thank everyone for their patience and insight into the issue.)
posted by aesop at 8:37 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is legal in the US. It's the same as if the office were closed due to a power outage or weather. Some employers will choose to pay you like normal in that case, others will require you to use PTO (or in the case of hourly/non-exempt employees, just not pay you). The work-from-home element adds a bit of a wrinkle since some people's homes may be much more prone to power outages than others.

This is something that's been covered at Ask A Manager several times, e.g. do you have to be paid if your office is closed because of a hurricane?

I definitely think an employer should cut workers some slack and cover workers for at least a day or two of normal pay (nickel and diming people is shitty and demoralizing, as noted above), but considering that a storm can cut your power for weeks, I wouldn't expect most employers to cover you indefinitely if you're unable to do your work.
posted by mskyle at 8:38 AM on October 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

In Ontario I think this would be legal as well. We have a three hour rule (if you're normally scheduled for more than three hours, you show up and are available, but you're sent home, you are required to be paid for three hours), but the Employment Standards Act explicitly says that rule does not apply in a situation such as a power loss where the employer does not have control over the power loss.

I agree it sucks, but it is within employment law where I am.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:48 AM on October 28, 2020

Thanks All, I think I have my answer really. Let's see how they like the work we can do with just a phone when & if the time comes. Grateful to you all for your input.
posted by aesop at 9:17 AM on October 28, 2020

I know you have your answer...but I wanted to add that some employers, like mine, have implemented Emergency Leave for this situation. Since we didn't choose to work from home, and many employees have kids at home or live in an area without great internet sometimes we can't work. This is a smart move on their part, none of us chose our homes with the idea that we would be working from them full time. Employees are happy, and working hard when they can.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 9:33 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

what the employee is providing is crucial to providing the service and is not a mere personal effect in this instance.

That doesn't change anything legally. As other corollaries:
  • delivery drivers are frequently required to own their own cars (and sometimes don't even get reimbursement for mileage/wear)
  • musicians are generally required to own and repair their own instruments
  • in many states, employees can be forced to pay for their own uniforms
  • in many states, it's common to expect construction workers and technicians to provide their own tools (often in that case it's because the workers have strong preferences on what tools to use)
  • hairdressers / salon workers generally own their own scissors/clippers
  • chefs generally provide their own knives
Your question seems to be a legal question, but your responses seem to be related to what your employer should do. Those are quite different - there are many legal actions employers shouldn't take.
posted by saeculorum at 9:35 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

UK here, and now we're all working from home my employer expects us to take a day out of our annual leave if we can't work due to broadband outage or something like that.
posted by essexjan at 10:06 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think this is similar to not being able to get to the office because your car broke down. It is something essential to be able to do your job but because it's not something the company is providing it then becomes your responsibility.
posted by simplethings at 12:49 PM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

We have had this come up and part of the issue is an equity issue-employee A lives in the boonies and Internet goes out a lot and employee B lives near the office and has more reliable Internet and also can come into the office if the their internet goes out. Does employee A get paid time off for three days this month and employee B has to work for the same pay simply based on where A lives/stability of their internet/etc?
posted by purenitrous at 7:50 PM on October 28, 2020

Maybe keep a nice set of papers that need sorted and filed, or a large stack of reports that need read or a How To [Do New Skill That Your Boss Approves You Learning While on the Clock] book handy for just such an occasion!
posted by slidell at 9:30 PM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

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