Next week, many Americans will witness a truly astronomical phenomenon: a total solar eclipse will sweep across the country on Monday, August 21. This is the first time a total eclipse will be visible in the U.S. since February 1979, and will be the last time such an event will occur until April 2024. The path of totality will pass over 14 states, although a partial eclipse will be visible in most of the country. When you combine the rarity of the event with the wide viewing area, you have a recipe for many disrupted workplaces. What do employers need to know about the total eclipse?
In The Week Leading Up To The Eclipse
In the week leading up to the event, you can expect two things from your workforce: distracted employees, and last-minute requests for time off. How should you deal with these issues?
As with any cultural event that captures the imagination, you can bet your workers will be spending time in the week leading up to the eclipse focusing on things other than work. Whether using their work computers or their personal smartphones or tablets, your workers will be spending time researching viewing locations, travel logistics, what to expect when the sun is blotted out of the sky, and the price of eclipse safety glasses, among other things. When not on an electronic device, there is a good chance that there will be talk around the old-fashioned watercooler about all things eclipse-related. What should you do about this expected activity and any resulting dip in productivity?
The best way to think about the eclipse is to consider it tantamount to other outside events that draw mass attention, such as the Super Bowl or March Madness. Some years ago, many employers tried to clamp down on any activity that distracted from the work at hand, barring any personal internet use and strictly enforcing zero tolerance policies. Times have changed, and most employers now realize that the distraction caused by these events is a normal and relatively harmless diversion.
If there were no eclipse-related topics to distract your workers over the next week, there would still be plenty of other non-work diversions to capture their attention. Instead of looking online to buy safety glasses, for example, they would probably be shopping for back-to-school sales. Instead of plotting a long weekend getaway to better see the eclipse, they would be planning their next vacation. Moreover, most employers have found that banning any personal internet use is like playing a losing game of whack-a-mole. If you prohibit internet use on your work computers, your workers will use their smartphones; banning non-work activity on company-issued smartphones will lead your workers to use their personal devices.
The best way to approach this topic, then, is to focus on productivity and work quality. You have every right to expect a certain level of productivity from your employees, and every right to demand that their work meets your qualitative expectations. So long as they are accomplishing these reasonable work goals, you should be satisfied with their job performance. Treat the next week no differently, then, recognizing that some eclipse-related conversation will draw your workers away from their work on an occasional basis.
Obviously, however, you have every right to prohibit excessive internet usage or undue work time spent chatting about personal matters, and are completely warranted for warning or disciplining those who violate your rules. So long as you consistently apply your policies, you should not run into legal hot water. Moreover, if job-related reasons compel your employees to remain 100% focused on the job during all working hours, you can and should require your workforce to save their eclipse-related activities until they are off duty.
Requests For Time Off
Tens of millions of Americans live in or nearby the eclipse’s path of totality, but there will be many who wish to venture out on the road to get a better look. Even some workers who live or work very close to the path of totality might want to be relieved of work responsibilities for the day (or part of the day) to enjoy the eclipse and any associated festivities. What should you do when these employees approach you and ask for time off?
Let’s start with the premise that you have no obligation to grant workers time off to view the eclipse or travel somewhere to get a better vantage point. In a few extreme cases, an employee might claim that their religion requires them to miss work that day, but those will be few and far between (and might require a call to your legal counsel to discuss your obligations on a case-by-case basis). In the vast majority of situations, you have no legal responsibility when it comes to granting time off, and any employees given the day off will receive the benefit as a workplace privilege, not a right.
So what should you keep in mind when you receive such a request? For starters, consider your business needs on the day in question. If you work in an industry that expects a spike in business due to eclipse-related tourism (restaurants, hotels, grocery and other convenience stores, gas stations, etc.), you should plainly communicate to your workers that their help will be required and that time off cannot be granted. The same holds true if you have a time-sensitive project or other business need that cannot be ignored that day.
If you have some leeway in granting time off, make sure you apply your policies consistently. Granting some requests while rejecting others could lead to claims of workplace bias, so make sure you are following your consistent policies and practices to avoid any claims of favoritism or bias. Also, review any applicable collective bargaining agreements to ensure you award time off work in accordance with applicable rules.
Overall, keeping morale high is key to employee satisfaction and retention. One of the best ways to engender a satisfied feeling among your workers is to keep an open line of communication. If you need to deny requests for time off, explain your rationale. Your employees might not be happy with your decision, but at least they will respect you for communicating your reasons, and they won’t feel like you pulled the rug out from under them. Another way to foster morale is to offer an eclipse-related event on the day of the eclipse for those employees unable to take the day off. Which leads us to…
The Day Of The Eclipse
Astronomers are able to predict with a precise level of accuracy what we can expect on the day of the eclipse in terms of timing, duration, and effects (see this detailed interactive map that displays information specific to your zip code). But what can you expect at the workplace? Here are three things to keep in mind:
Eclipse-Related Office Event
As noted above, for those workers forced to work on August 21, you may want to consider organizing an office event during the peak of the eclipse. After all, although the effects of the eclipse will linger for several hours in many areas, the anticipated totality event will last mere minutes. The majority of businesses can spare this brief amount of time for their workers for the sake of office morale.
Just as with organizing a March Madness office bracket tournament or a Super Bowl party, you may want to consider planning an event where employees can socialize with one another in the run-up to and during the eclipse. NASA has put together a website with party planning suggestions that might be of interest to employers.
Of course, if you are going to organize an eclipse viewing event, you need to ensure that proper safety protocols are followed. Looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the very brief moments when the sun is totally obscured by the moon. For this reason, special-purpose solar filters – usually called “eclipse glasses” – are an absolute must. Another option for safe viewing is using the pinhole projection method.
NASA’s website also describes best safety practices; you should review the page in advance of any work event that you organize. You may also want to share this information with employees who will be performing outdoor work on August 21.
If you have employees who operate mobile equipment outdoors – whether a company car, forklift, or some other vehicle – remind them of the dangers of distracted driving. Viewing the eclipse while operating heavy equipment is dangerous and could result in an accident. In may be prudent to place a moratorium on outdoor driving during the peak of the event.
Finally, ensure that all employees who work outdoors on elevated surfaces are provided with all required fall protection equipment and reminded of the importance of “tying off.” Workers on rooftops or exposed platforms are likely to be distracted during the event, which may result in trips or falls.
Finally, just as the sun will disappear on August 21, you should expect any number of your employees to do the same. Unscheduled absences will most likely occur in high numbers that day, including from some workers who come down with a mysterious one-day “eclipse flu.” How should you handle these situations?
You should revisit the various methods employers have at their disposal to combat intermittent family or sick leave, given that many of the same principles might apply to this situation. These include scrutinizing the original medical certification, requesting recertification when permitted, seeking second opinions, closely tracking all absences, and following up on suspicious circumstances. Conveniently missing work on the day of eclipse due to an “illness” – especially if the employee’s request for the day off was denied – can be considered an unusual circumstance the same way that frequent Friday-Monday absences deserve special scrutiny.
Finally, if the employee does not blame a sickness but simply takes an unscheduled personal day without following your company notification protocols, your task is to apply your policies in an even-handed manner. If you have disciplined others for doing the same thing, you should feel free to do so in this instance. However, if you have previously turned a blind eye where employees don’t follow your call-in procedures to the letter or otherwise take personal time off without advance notice, you may run into legal trouble if you try to drop the hammer come August 22.
For more information, visit our website at www.fisherphillips.com, or contact your regular Fisher Phillips attorney.
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