Children got a snow day on Tuesday. But many adults were checking work e-mails, answering business calls, and finishing up projects from home.
The technology that made it easier for most workers to telecommute is also making it a much simpler call for companies to pay employees if they can’t get to the office during a snowstorm or other emergency. For many companies, the Internet has eliminated the tricky question: to pay or not to pay.
So, too, did the state’s decision to shut down transportation systems and impose a travel ban. Many companies opted to pay workers, because they had no choice but to stay home.
“It gets much easier when the state dictates and essentially sends a message to please stay off the roads,” said Gary Cormier, a director of human resources consulting for Harvard University, which shut down Tuesday but paid all workers. “It takes it out of the gray area and goes in black and white.”
The decision whether to pay workers, however, gets more complicated in the days after the storm. That’s when offices reopen and snow plows have cleared the main roads, but workers may still have trouble navigating icy neighborhood roads or finding child care due to school closures.
“That’s where judgment gets introduced,” said Patricia Latimore, the chief financial officer of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.
Under federal law, companies must pay hourly employees only for the time worked. An employer can require a salaried worker who is absent due to inclement weather when the office is open to use a vacation day or personal day. Policies vary by company.
At the United Way, employees who stayed home Wednesday with children because schools were closed or child care plans fell through were asked to take a personal day or vacation day. But workers who stayed home because they felt it would be difficult or unsafe to commute to work will be paid as usual, Latimore said.
“We live by the honor system, so if someone says they can’t travel on their street because the plows haven’t come, we accept that,” she explained. “We trust our employees, and my sense in general is they don’t abuse this, and we believe they want to get to work if possible.”
Boston-based insurance giant Liberty Mutual closed 81 offices in the region on Tuesday and the 13,000 employees who work there were paid, said Adrianne Kaufmann, a company spokeswoman.
On Wednesday, the company had a delayed opening and workers who couldn’t travel and weren’t able to work from home had to burn a personal day, she said.
For workers, balancing the need to show up to the office the day after and dealing with family responsibilities can be hard.
Laurie Frederico, who is a hairdresser at Hair Cuttery in Medford and lives in Saugus, said she was lucky her mother-in-law was available to take care of her two children, 11 and 14, on Wednesday while the schools were closed.
“Sometimes I have to stay home in an emergency like this,” she says, “ and then I lose a day’s income, which is a lot for us.”
Office jobs, however, can increasingly be done anywhere with an Internet connection. Even internal databases and specialty in-house software may easily be accessed through virtual private networks, or VPNs, a type of secure connection.
And the ubiquity of high-bandwidth connections and camera-equipped laptop computers makes staying in touch easier.
“I can remember years ago needing to do a video conference with clients in Japan, and I had to stay in the office until midnight to use the video equipment there,” said Becky Smith, vice president of global recruiting at Pegasystems Inc., a Cambridge strategic applications company. “But during the blizzard, I was at home having meetings with people in Australia and the United Kingdom, and it worked seamlessly.”
Technology, of course, isn’t a way out of difficult pay-or-not decisions for all companies. Retailers, for example, need workers in the store to serve customers, stock shelves, and ring up sales.
Retailers mostly hire hourly workers and legally don’t need to pay them except for the time on the job, said Patty Hilger, president of Genesis HR Solutions, a Burlington company that handles payroll and workplace issues for small and medium-sized businesses in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. On Tuesday, most retail workers probably lost a day’s wages because they couldn’t get in to work, said Hilger.
But a small and growing number of companies are taking a different approach to snow days. Instead of docking employees who don’t show up, they reward employees who trudge through the snow to come to work, with an extra vacation day or a small bonus.
Dave Wilson, a Boston human resources attorney, said one of his clients, a local nursing home, paid employees who covered for their snowbound colleagues a bonus. The philosophy, he said, is “not to penalize people for not coming.”
Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer and Globe correspondents Stefanie Friedhoff and Dan Adams contributed to this story. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.