Emergencies like the Boston Marathon bombings raise thorny questions about what employers are required to do--and what they simply should do.
The Boston area awoke Friday to something of a bad dream, as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ordered residents and businesses to lock their doors and stay inside.
The move capped a terrifying week, which saw three dead and scores injured following the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and a subsequent manhunt that left two more dead, including a suspect and a police officer. Boston residents described an eerie ghost town and an emotionally charged atmosphere.
For business owners, the events raised questions about how they should run their companies in this kind of emergency scenario, with regard to both employees and customers.
"The first and foremost concern of every business must be employee and customer safety," Charley Moore, founder and executive chairman of Rocket Lawyer, in San Francisco, wrote in an email.
President Obama has declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts. On Friday, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, that state's equivalent of FEMA, instructed employees who were already at work to return home either by taxi or car. With that in mind, every business has a duty to follow the orders and guidance of government and law enforcement, but also to take "ordinary care, not to be negligent," Moore said. That means providing a safe and supportive work environment.
You should have a clear, written employee policy in place for emergencies, which might include letting employees telecommute. That plan should also include specifications for returning to work, experts said.
“Typically, if employees do something against the policy of the employer, the employer is not liable for any problems that arise," Chas Rampenthal, general counsel of LegalZoom wrote in an email. But a lot is at stake if you require employees to come in and something happens to them.
You are liable, however, if the employee is doing something that furthers the activities of your business, Rampenthal says.
Additionally, employers are required to pay their exempt employees for any days missed as the result of a shutdown that lasts less than a week, says Salvador P. Simao, a partner at employment law firm FordHarrison, in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
If workers are stuck at work and can't get home and you require them to work, or if you ask employees to work at home, they are considered at work or on-call, and you must pay them, Simao says. Employees can be required to work from home.
Much of this was common sense to Boston-based businesses on Friday.
"We told everybody at 6 a.m. to not come in," says Jeff Bussgang, general partner at venture capital firm Flybridge Capital Partners, which has an office on Boylston Street, near the epicenter of the crime scene. The firm has 10 employees.
Bussgang says his building was locked down on Tuesday, then reopened on Wednesday and Thursday.
"No one’s going anywhere today," Bussgang said on Friday, though his employees were working from home.
Similarly, Jon Friedman, co-founder and chief executive of Freight Farms, a company that produces vegetable growing units inside used shipping containers, much of this was also common sense. Friedman, whose business has offices in Boston's seaport and in Cambridge, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he awoke to the news of the manhunt at 5 a.m. and immediately called and emailed his five employees, telling them not to come in. He also canceled all meetings for the day, but asked his workers to do what they could from home.
Friedman described a scene of empty streets outside the window of his apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood, south of downtown Boston. All surrounding businesses, such as cafes, restaurants, and doctors' offices were closed, he said.
"The first thing that goes off in your head is that you have a team that feels obligated to go to work, and my priority is their safety, and everything else goes from there," Friedman says.
--Jana Kasperkevic and Julie Strickland contributed reporting
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