As the snow of 2008 plowed into a new year, many residents faced road conditions that made it too dangerous to travel to work.
Many side streets looked like impromptu junkyards punctuated by the sound of spinning tires and frustrated neighbors pushing bumpers in vain. Some truck drivers left their trailers sticking into the roadways as their semis got stuck in snow berms.
But when the worst conditions hit Dec. 18 and Dec. 19, employees at Spokane, Spokane County and Kootenai County got something that most other workers did not: They got paid to stay home. The city of Coeur d’Alene closed only for Dec. 18, but its employees got the same deal, an administrative assistant said.
“When you shut it down and tell them not to come to work, if you dock their pay it’s counterintuitive,” city of Spokane spokeswoman Marlene Feist said. “If it’s a forced day off, I’m sure there is some union rule about that. You can’t force someone to use their vacation time.”
At the city of Spokane and Spokane county, employees who stayed home were paid their normal wage. Those who trudged through the snow and wind were paid the same, county spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said.
“Things have been so crazy,” she said, referring to two evacuations on different days this week because of snow loads on roofs. “While that’s lost production time, those folks are still going to get paid.”
Many state workers whose offices were closed during the snowstorm also will get paid.
State law leaves it up to each agency to decide whether employees will be paid during emergency closures.
“If the employer’s suspended operations procedure allows, employees may be released without a loss in pay,” Eva Santos, head of the state Department of Personnel, wrote in a letter to all agency directors in mid-December.
In her own agency,operations were suspended because of snow and ice Dec. 22. Workers were still paid.
“There were numerous days we authorized inclement weather leave, per the rules and our agency policy,” spokeswoman Meagan Macvie said.
But workers who don’t work for government might find some relief.
Under certain circumstances, unemployment benefits are available for employees whose employers closed as a result of the snowstorms and didn’t pay workers.
However, employees can only get unemployment checks if that business was closed for more than a week, because the state does not pay for the first week a person becomes unemployed.
And the checks from the state Employment Security Department are not available to employees who lost pay because they could not get to work while their employer remained open.
Meanwhile, county employees got an extra benefit. Weeks ago, the Spokane County Commission passed a resolution making the day after Christmas a holiday similar to that received by state and federal employees, Wheatley-Billeter said.
“So if you came into work the day after Christmas, you would get a comp day. But you wouldn’t get any extra money,” she said.
While local public employees got paid, it wasn’t clear whether that practice is universal throughout the state for public employees, said Julie Murray, a policy director at the Washington State Association of Counties.
“I know of no state law that would cover this,” Murray said. “So what probably does happen is that it is a county-by-county policy and done largely with input from their collective bargaining units.”
King County is facing such large budget shortfalls that it required all county employees to take 10 furlough days, which are unpaid. When a snowstorm dumped several inches of snow on Seattle, some of those employees chose to take their furlough days rather than travel to work, Murray said.
She said she knows most employees who work for private businesses don’t have that flexibility.
“There are a lot of personnel issues that are going on that are not hitting the private sector at all,” Murray said. “I haven’t heard any splash-back.”