Should companies in downtown Tampa let workers stay home during the Republican National Convention? What if employees refuse to come in? And who's liable if someone gets hurt navigating through protestors to make it to work?
Bill deMeza, a Tampa lawyer specializing in employment issues, has a unique vantage point on such issues.
Not only is he advising downtown employers on how to handle the influx of tens of thousands of conventioneers and protestors next month, he'll also be in the middle of the action.
DeMeza's employer, Holland & Knight, has offices on the upper floors of the 42-story 100 North Tampa building, just two blocks from the convention site.
Holland & Knight offices will stay open convention week. DeMeza is playing it by ear which days to come into the office, but he plans to be in the thick of it at least part of the time.
"Part of it is curiosity," he said. "I'd like to see what's going on."
Here's deMeza's advice to companies preparing for the big week:
What's the biggest employer issue surrounding RNC?
Two things: How do I deal with attendance and are there safety concerns (given) the escalating news stories about larger groups of maybe unfriendly people gathering at the convention? Am I endangering my employees by having them come to work or walking home in the evening?
What specific concerns are you hearing?
"Should I tell them to stay home?"
Also, employers frequently want to know about the pay aspects of it. They wonder, Do I have to pay my hourly people if they don't come to work? And the answer is: No, you don't have to pay them.
You can hold them to the same attendance and pay standards as you do during normal weeks. You're within your right to fire them if they don't show up. But from a business perspective, that's probably not what you want to do. You want to keep the business running after this crazy week.
Have you heard specific cases of businesses planning to close?
To the contrary, the people I've talked to are determined to stay open.
What are the top security concerns?
They have to think through if they haven't already about where people are going to park and how they will get to their building. Will they have to work their way through any angry crowds?
Be sensitive and tell your people to use good sense. If you want them to get to work, but they have to work through tear gas, probably their better course is not to do that.
The bottom-line advice to clients: be alert, be smart, be flexible.
So the work plan becomes a day-to-day decision?
Yes. One bit of practical advice: If you don't have a communications (network) set up, you ought to do that. A lot of Florida employers already do due to the threat of hurricanes. Get something going so that on any day … you can notify (employees) not to bother coming in.
This is a mistake some employers make: They either don't develop a plan in advance or don't tell the employees. Employers who want people in the week of RNC have to (tell workers) now and start sorting through issues with certain employees if they have one.
In our office, most of the professional people have home computers. I personally am not going to come in three or four days that week and just work from home.
What should be top of mind for companies that insist workers come in?
Getting people home at the end of the day when convention people have gathered and the protestors are in full force. How do I get my folks out of the office? Some folks are talking about taxis or limos. Good luck with that.
Is there a better transit solution?
Many people are carpooling or encouraging their people to carpool. You can travel from the garage to the office in groups and do the same returning to the garage en route home.
Safety in numbers?
Who knows how violent and aggressive this is going to be? The standard advice is prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I think some of our employer clients are going to tell people to take time off and don't come in. Just take vacation.
How much discretion do employees have to stay home if they don't feel the environment is safe?
The employers can legally say, "You have to come to work. I want you there." But everybody is advising their employees: "Don't be stupid; use good judgment."
If there is an employee who already has an issue of not being the best employee, and they give you an excuse that it was too dangerous to come to work and you have some basis to question them, then maybe you can look into it afterward.
If employees wind up working from home, what's the best way to track the hours worked?
That's an issue for a lot of telecommuters. How do you record it?
You have employees write down the hours they worked. Or if they are signed on to a computer, they email to say when they're logged on or when they take a break.
For legal reasons, it's best that it comes from the employees certifying the number of hours worked.
What on-site precautions should companies take to protect workers?
If an organization has disabled employees — particularly disabled employees who use handicapped parking – given the parking mess that's likely to occur, they should think about how to handle that. How will you give close access to the building?
Safety is an ongoing concern. I know the law will hold companies to a reasonable employer standard. What would a reasonable employer do under the circumstances? Use good sense and tell your employees to use good sense.
Talk to the workers' comp carrier and make sure there is no problem letting people work. In most cases, I don't think so. Workers' comp will cover it. I don't think it will cover employees walking to and from parking to the building.
Just yesterday, we got an email that, for our building, everyone who enters will be vouched in. People can't just walk in through our lobby. They'll have to call up and say, "I'm here to see so-and-so."
Are employers liable if a worker leaves the office during lunch to see some of the action on the streets?
No. That's their own judgment. If you want excitement, you can go to get it.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.