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Carol Cwiak, Published January 15 2011

Businesses deserve spurge

The Forum’s recent dubious leafy spurge distinction to drivers who insist upon driving in horrible weather, thus putting themselves and others in danger, deserves a footnote. The Forum called for these drivers to be fined or jailed based on the level of risk they created, citing that “we all have a civic responsibility to not place others at risk.”

I concur with The Forum’s view on this, but I believe it missed a key factor in its assessment of why folks drive in such weather. That component is employers who mandate that employees either come to, or stay at, work despite the worsening conditions. In these tough economic times, most employees do not have the luxury of telling their bosses they will defy workplace expectations to conform to society’s expectation of their “civic responsibility.” Most folks need their paycheck to survive, and the threat of losing one’s job changes the risk evaluation these folks have to make to a lesser-of-two-evils assessment. Unfortunately, most folks view losing their job as a bigger evil than driving in poor weather because one has a certain outcome while the other has only an increased risk with an uncertain outcome.

The Forum’s disdain should be likewise focused on employers who put their employees at risk by either mandating that they come or stay at work. While there were many businesses that made smart risk-management choices on behalf of their employees (and their business) and closed early, there were many that continued to stay open despite worsening conditions and a blizzard warning. These businesses that stayed open and put their employees at risk unnecessarily should be the ones that are fined and fined big.

If an employee is injured or killed because they drove to work despite travel advisories – because to not do so would impact the status of their employment – it is my belief that the business has now created a state of culpability for itself. If one of my family members was injured or killed because of such a situation, I would sue the business, arguing that a reasonably prudent business owner should have known that folks would put themselves at potential risk if they believed their job was threatened. Business owners who mandate that employees come in when conditions are deteriorating expose their business to liability (in addition to reputation damage).

Businesses should establish a sound weather policy for employees that takes into consideration employee safety, day care and school closings, the drop-off in business volume (due to the weather) and possible local road closures. Work-at-home procedures can be established for some employees to help limit business interruption. Good planning and sound policies before such an event occurs are key to effective risk management for businesses.

Prairie Roses to those businesses that were good community members by putting their employees’ safety first, thereby making it safer for everyone. When I have to make a choice about which businesses I will support as a consumer, it will be those that have evidenced care for their employees and the overall safety of the community. Take note, business owners: Sometimes the bottom line is better served by keeping the doors closed for a day or two.