By Jillian Henze, APR
Senior Communications Manager
OLYMPIA – December is the official start of winter and that means snow and windstorms are coming, sending Washington restaurant owners into a scramble when entire crews call out and sending hotel general managers into overtime changing beds and supporting guests with limited-service stayovers.
In addition to reminding employees that Washington state’s Paid Sick Leave cannot be taken because of inclement weather or snow (but in the city of Tacoma it can), here is a roundup of best practices so you can prepare today.
Assess the risk
Tailor your business’ snow and inclement weather operations plan based on risk. Counties most at risk of significant storms include those along the Pacific Coast, counties within the Puget Sound basin, counties along the east slopes of the Cascade Mountains, some counties in Southeastern Washington as well as Spokane County, according to the Washington State Hazard Mitigation Plan in April 2013.
You won’t likely need a year-round storm plan. The Columbus Day Windstorm took place in October 1962 (still the most dramatic weather ever to hit the state) and the time frame for inclement weather can last through to March. Remember that snowstorm in February 2019?
Employee communication and HR
Now is the time to make snow policy updates to your employee handbook and communicate to employees they cannot use paid sick leave if they do not attend a shift because of snow or ice.
Paid Sick and Safe Leave can only be used in Washington state if the school or daycare is closed because of health reasons, not snow or inclement weather. Employees can only use paid sick leave if a closure coincides with a sick child or dependent, said Elisa Bosshardt, human resources manager for the Washington Hospitality Association. The one exception is the city of Tacoma, where the law allows employees to use paid sick leave if a public official, like a school district superintendent, closes schools.
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Employees in Seattle should be reminded that Seattle’s Secure Scheduling Ordinance grants a premium pay exception for inclement weather, according to the city’s website. Employers who must comply with the ordinance do not have to pay premium pay if inclement weather closes the business.
How will you communicate closures to employees? Identify in your employee handbook how the phone tree or manager notification works for employees and how far in advance of the shift that will be communicated. Businesses that take the time to figure that out typically have better relationships with employees versus having to scramble.
If an operation is closed because of weather, exempt employees are paid regardless, Bosshardt said. Hourly employees are unpaid unless there is a policy for paying them if they show up to work. If employees arrive and the business is closed within 15 minutes (or at any time after their scheduled shift should start) the employee should be paid for that time.
Also, if an hourly employee does not show up for work during inclement weather, then vacation/PTO can be used by the employer if that is the set policy, Bosshardt said.
No one wants to place an employee in an unsafe situation. There are employees who are determined to show up for work even with hazardous conditions, Bosshardt said, so the policy should require some form of communication to tell employees about the closure. According to the National Weather Service, about 70% of injuries during winter storms result from vehicle accidents, and about 25% of injuries result from being caught in a storm.
An industry trend is for hotels to offer some employees to stay on property overnight.
According to David Sullivan, general manager of Cedarbrook Lodge, it’s best to identify in advance which team members are willing, and have the ability, to stay overnight in the case of inclement weather. Having a base of employees who come to work ready to stay for several days can be a help. Be sure to communicate to them that they may be asked to do much more than what they would normally do during a shift, including shoveling snow, helping to clean rooms, running items to guests and helping in the restaurant, he said.
“This is also a great way to build bonds between team members from different departments,” Sullivan said. “Treat them well when they are in-house and allow them to eat [a good meal] at the end of a hard day.”
It’s time to review your insurance coverage. If your roof caves in because of snow, are you covered?
Hotel generators only power certain items. Connect with neighboring properties and discuss what power resources you can share in the case of an outage.
Building a community of support with your neighbors ahead of time will allow you to better serve your guests and could increase your chances of staying open.
Also, meet with your vendors. As far as delivery plans in inclement weather, now is the time to learn your suppliers’ standard operating procedures for winter delivery routes, said Chris Patterson, business solutions for US Foods.
“Understand that whereas your supplier might be making deliveries, it does happen that mountain passes do close, and this can impact your supplier’s inbound freight,” Patterson said. “Also, delivery drivers are not the only people on the road, and you would be wise to be prepared for delays. To hedge your bet, consider temporarily increasing your inventory on hand to get you through a day and a half on some of your critical items.”
He recommended you ask your suppliers:
• Under what specific conditions does the company hold routes?
• When does the company make that call?
• How and when does the supplier communicate route and delivery changes to the operator?
Patterson said as far as the US Foods operating unit on the east side of the state, unless there is a road closed, delivery trucks are driving.
How will you clean your linens? Many hotel properties can turn rooms once or twice with the linens on hand and then will need to send laundry offsite to be cleaned.
Identify what laundry services may be available to you, and learn their power outage protocols, to accommodate guests who do wish to stay for limited service stayovers.
Food safety precautions
Washington State’s Department of Health has an excellent guide for restaurateurs who experience a power outage, or who are preparing for one. Consider printing the guide now (Spanish language included) to have on hand in the event your power goes out.
• Keep track of the time the outage begins.
• Stop using gas or solid fuel cooking and heating equipment if the exhaust hood and make-up air systems stop working. Using this equipment without proper ventilation can lead to a dangerous build up of toxic fumes that may cause injury or death.
• Throw away any foods that are in the process of being cooked but have not yet reached their final cooking temperature.
• A power outage of two hours or less is not considered hazardous to food that was being held under safe conditions when the outage began.
After power is restored to your restaurant, the Department of Health recommends checking the internal temperatures of hot and cold foods to ensure they are still safe to serve. Its website has handy temperature charts.
Removing snow and ice
Decide who is responsible for removing snow and ice and how you will restore power. This is also the time to stockpile emergency supplies, including a battery-powered flashlight in every guest room, and get your power generator serviced. Ensure you have first aid supplies.
Patterson said to be sure you are picking a non-corrosive ice melter to protect your parking lot and sidewalks.
If you have a large property with many walkways, the purchase of a snow blower may come in handy, Sullivan said. Be prepared to close some walkways off with caution tape if you can’t get to them to prevent guest accidents. If you have a large parking area, plan to have it plowed.
“Last-minute calls usually have no chance of getting a response,” he reminded.
Extra sets of waterproof jackets, pants and boots, hand warmers and foot warmers are appreciated by employees who work outside.
Whether or not you are able to stay open, don’t neglect communicating with customers, experts advise.
Let customers know what is, and isn’t, available. This includes phone calls, updating your website, a note on the front door of the business and even the local media.
“They will all understand if you communicate, but will easily get frustrated if you don’t,” Sullivan said. “Engage your guests and have fun! Make the most of the moment. Complimentary coffee and hot chocolate can go a long way. We had an impromptu snowman building contest between guests and team members. It’s also great for social media.”