I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that this has been a winter unlike any other in recent memory. Eastport has been hit with 99 inches of snow in 20 days—numbers of biblical proportions. Closer to home here in Portland, snowfall stands at 80 inches, or far above normal for this time of year. From my office windows, I can see Casco Bay frozen over—the first time in 35 years.
In the summer, people often complain it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. Well this winter, it’s not just the snow, it’s the cold. As of earlier this week, February was on course to set a record for the coldest daily temperatures ever. It seems positively balmy of late when the mercury gets into the double digits. I guess the groundhog was right when he saw his shadow—this winter seems like it is never going to end.
Many employers understand the difficult situation these winter conditions have created for everybody and allow workers to use sick and vacation time if they can’t make it to work, or have to report late. But that’s not required by law. In fact, the law in this area isn’t just gray–as the headline of a recent article proclaimed—I’d say it is rather black for workers.
Most employees in Maine don’t have a union, which means they are at will employees. And as at will employees, they can be fired for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. Which means that when you have to stay home because it’s yet another snow day for your kid’s school, or you’re late to work because your plow guy hasn’t shown up, that’s no excuse. If the employer wants to do so, it can fire you.
About the only real protection workers have when the weather turns positively frightful is under Maine’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. Under the WPA, an employee with a reasonable and good faith belief can refuse to engage in work which would endanger the employee’s own health and safety or that of any other individual. Several years ago, I helped resolve a case on behalf of a trucker who was fired after he refused to drive in blizzard conditions.
The WPA protected that trucker—but he already was at work. What about someone who hasn’t arrived yet at work? I’m not so sure that the protections of the WPA extend so far to off-duty employees.
Hopefully, this winter will come to an end soon. Hopefully, the cold and snow will abate. But until they do, hopefully you have an understanding employer—or the protection of a union contract. Otherwise, you could be fired — oops, I mean frozen — out of your job.