Stormy weather: Should you work from home?

A group of men help push a sports car up a snow-covered street in the Old Port section of Portland, Mane, during a snow storm, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

(MoneyWatch) The winter smackdown the Northeast is getting today raises a perennial question for companies facing major weather events: Should employees be allowed to work from home or leave early, or should they tough it out and report to work as usual?

For workers, it depends on individual job functions and how critical it is that they be in the office. Here are some rules of thumb in deciding whether to brave the weather:

What did your boss say? This should be the first thing you think about. Have you asked your boss directly? What did he or she say? If your boss allows you to stay home, the next questions is will you get paid for it?

If you're a "non-exempt" employee, you may not get paid. Non-exempt employees (meaning those who are eligible for overtime) are paid for only for the hours they work. If you're not working, your boss is under no obligation to pay you. Some will, of course. And some will allow you to use one of your vacation days to cover your paycheck for the week.

If you're exempt, pay depends on why you're staying home. If you've worked any part of the week and your office is closed, they still need to pay you your regular salary. They can, however, take the time from your vacation, or paid time off, bank. (If you are out of vacation pay, they still have to pay you, but that tends to be unlikely in February.) But if the office is open and you just don't come into work, they aren't obligated to pay you. Exempt employees must be paid their full salaries as long as they are "ready, willing, and able" to work. If the office is open and you're not there, then you've just broken that requirement. However, most offices will allow you to use a vacation day in order to be paid.

What if you are working from home? As long as you are doing actual work, exempt and non-exempt employees should be paid. Exempt employees should receive the same paycheck no matter how many hours they put in. Non-exempt employees should track their own hours and add them to the week's time card. 

What if the boss said you couldn't work from home? Bosses do get to decide this kind of stuff. If your manager said you need to come in, you need to come in if you don't want to face the consequences of being a no-show. You can be terminated for not showing up, even if bad weather is the cause.

What if you're the boss? If you are the boss, you get to make these kinds of decisions. Think carefully before you say no. Ask yourself:

- Can this work be done at home? Lots of computer work can be done at home, and many of us mainly work on computers. If your employees have laptops and Internet connections, the answer should almost certainly be yes to anyone who wants to stay at home.

Will you have as many customers? You may not need as many people and may want to allow the people who live farther away to stay homed for the day.

- How do your employees get to work? If their normal commute is 45 minutes on the road, it's really not nice to force them to come in when it's not necessary for the business. If, on the other hand, they have a 10-minute subway ride, then telling them to put their boots on and come on in is not a big deal.

- Is it critical work? Doctors, nurses, hospital cafeteria workers and police officers all must report in. Accountants? Not so much. (Yes, I know accounting is critical, but not in a blizzard.)

- Are you coming in? If you demand that employees come to work and then you work from home, you will lose the respect of your workforce. It will take you years to regain that respect, and the reality is you may never get it back. If you're an administrator over people who must come in (for example, hospital workers), you should make every effort to come in yourself. There may be people who physically cannot make it in, and while you cannot perform that appendectomy, you can clean the floors, serve some lunch and hand out blankets.

In the end, no matter what the boss says, everyone has to decide whether traveling in such weather is worth the risk. This may mean that the person who moved up from Florida last month should stay at home, but the person from Northern Alberta with a four-wheel drive vehicle can come on in. Above all, managers should think not only about what's best for the business today, but what is best for the business in the future. And having a workforce that is safe, healthy and glad they work for you can go a long way toward making a successful business.