Snow Days and Decisions

Snow days, for a manger, always make a decision imminent. Will the business say it’s okay for the staff to stay home, or will the business make them come to work? Will the manger follow the business’ rules and force her staff to come to work, or will the manager buck tradition and tell the staff to stay home? It’s a tough call, especially given the current economy and environment in business, but for me, several years ago anyway, there was no question. I chose the latter.

At the time, I was working for a large company, with over 4,500 employees. Some of the employees at the company were “essential” since they worked in the medical field, kept the boilers and chillers running, and kept the sidewalks and parking lots cleaned. Some of the staff were “non-essential” since they were accountants, legal folks, secretaries, and professional non-medical staff. My team fell into the latter category, and even though the term “non-essential” may sound like a person truly isn’t necessary, in snow day language, it simply means that it’s not essential that you risk life and limb to be at work today as we can surely get by without you for one day. Or so I thought.

I worked there for a long time. Even though I was “non-essential”, I had trudged to work, over bridges and highways covered with black ice, one of those years to attend work. Even as a lowly admin assistant at one point, I had made it over the river bridge just prior to the time the State Police shut it down due to ice. I was, therefore, stuck on the south side of the river, opposite the side on which my home was, until the ice melted. Thankfully, as in most years in Arkansas, the ice stayed approximately 12 hours and was gone. That was the first year I worked there, and I had come from another organization several years prior where I was absolutely essential, serving as a dispatcher for an electric company. Seems folks want their power on, ice or not. This I can understand. As I walked up the treacherous parking lots and streets in my warm up pants and duck boots, I felt a sense of pride, knowing that I was trying to help the common good. Or so I thought.

I worked that evening in the administration office, calling nurses to see when they were coming in to work, and helping to dispatch work trucks and even some personal 4-wheel drive vehicles to go pick them up. I remember one nurse saying that she wasn’t coming in, even though the truck was literally at the end of her short driveway to pick her up. Why? Because she didn’t want to fall in her own driveway. I remember being yelled at by a VP, who thought I didn’t know anything about dispatching. HA! I had done it for 3 years at the electric company, sending trucks out to help serve our 27,000 consumers in rain, snow, sleet, tornadoes, and on regular calls. I was pretty sure I could handle dispatching five work trucks to pick up nurses. But, I am off topic.

I also worked that night in the cafeteria, making cornbread with 72 eggs in one batch. (True story.) We also made jello in these huge containers, and I made sandwiches as well. There were folks from the cafeteria who couldn’t make it in, so they basically put me to work wherever I could be used. I ended up working as a unit secretary in an ICU, and I knew nothing about anything, much less anyone’s names. Answering the phone and not knowing if people were there was really difficult. In the end, I think I slept on my office floor for about 2 hours, and then got up and did more work before finally going home around noon the next day. All the while, non-essential, low-paid, and not receiving one single dime of overtime pay as I did’t work more than 4 hours on the late shift. Totally not worth it. Meanwhile, the nurse who said she couldn’t make it down her short driveway was home, cozy in her bed, with her family. I decided that, at that point, it really wasn’t worth it.

I came in to regular work hours during ice and snow many other times, simply because I didn’t want to use my vacation time for a snow day. Some years, I was lucky enough to ride in with my Sweetie, who has a 4-wheel drive truck and is pretty good driving on the slick stuff. Some years, I drove myself, as I can drive on it very well, since my dad taught me how to when I was young. It’s scary as hell, but it can be done if you take it easy and if it’s not too bad. Our current neighborhood and my drive to work now, though, make it incredibly difficult as it’s hilly and curvy the whole way to work. I’ve driven it one time and have swore not to do it again. So, I haven’t.

In later years at the old job, the management team decided that it wasn’t fair to make the essential staff come to work and allow the non-essential staff to stay home. So, they made an edict that, if a non-essential staff person didn’t come in on a snow day (and they weren’t already scheduled to be off) they had to be written up. What a crock.

Essential staff sign up to be so when they take the job. They know, without a doubt, that they have to be at work, no matter what. I knew that at the electric company. I knew I had to be there, and there were no excuses not to be, unless I was simply out of town. Even if you were on vacation, there, you came in to work. There weren’t a lot of extra folks to help, so you did what you had to do. But – I KNEW IT WHEN I TOOK THE JOB. I’m positive that most of the non-essential staff I worked with at this other job never took that job thinking that they were bound to be there come hell or high water. It’s not what we signed up to do. So, I balked. I refused. I almost got fired. It was one of my proudest moments in my working career.

I had four staff members that year. One lived about 1/2 mile from the office, and getting there wasn’t a big deal. One lived about 15 miles away, and one drove an older car and usually came in regardless of what was going on. I had a great team. One was about 7 months pregnant. There was no way I would put her on the road, and put that over my head.

The edict came down a few days prior to the snow event. Basically, if someone didn’t come in, then they were to be written up and docked a day of vacation. Three of the four weren’t as big an issue, but I wanted to be fair as well. What was good for one was good for all, but it was their decision whether to come in or not. I went to my boss. We talked about it several times. We had heated discussions about it, as well. I asked them to reconsider the edict. I pleaded common sense, traffic fatality rates, the dangers of more people on the roads in general, and the fact that the police and city leaders were pleading with people to stay home “unless absolutely necessary.” It was a really bad, full-scale snow and ice event, not your 3/4” typical Arkansas bread and milk emergency. My pleadings got me nowhere. So, I decided to sacrifice the queen (see previous story) and shoot the moon (as in the game Pitch).

I remember taking a deep breath and walking through my boss’s door. I didn’t sit down. I was as calm as I could be, which was extremely difficult. I told him that he could write me up, he could get mad at me, he could even fire me; I didn’t care. But, what I wasn’t going to do was to follow the edict. I would not put a pregnant woman and her unborn child on the treacherous highway. I would not follow a not-well-thought-out edict from people who have no children or young families at home, from people who lived within 4 miles of the office, on the south side of the river, from people who probably spent the night at work. I would not add to the traffic and those who didn’t know how to drive on the snow and ice. I would not, because it was not necessary, ask my non-essential staff member to come to work and sit all day doing nearly nothing, just because some whiny essential staff didn’t like being treated unfairly. I refused.

I didn’t get written up. I didn’t get fired. I just got a stern talking to. I didn’t make my staff come in that day, and I’m glad I did not. I would do the same exact thing again if I had to make the choice. There would be no question in my mind about it, regardless of my own consequences.

Now, as a small business owner myself, I know the value of being at work and catching business. I also know, from that job and other jobs I have had, that the most valuable business asset one has is the staff members who work for you. Right now, I’m a one-woman shop, but I will probably hire an assistant at some point in the future. If you treat your staff well, they will walk through fire for you. I think that is something that a lot of people do not understand, as they feel like people are a commodity that can be used and abused and tossed aside. The lack of policies is like having a thousand unwritten policies in itself, always changing and moving toward the darkness of uncertainty. Having too many policies is like having a maze that staff must traverse every time they want to do anything at all – and it hampers productivity. An even keeled workplace is essential to maintaining a good working environment, with happy staff, who help you make your business venture successful. It takes smarts, gumption, know-how, and funding, but it also takes compassion and empathy to individual situations. This is lost in today’s society, and it is just one of many reasons that people are in such angst nowadays.

While an edict on a snow day may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it was most likely one of the proverbial straws that broke the camel’s back. The straw may seem insignificant to management, but it’s not to the camel.

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