Driving in inclement weather can be hazardous. As an employee you have the right to refuse to drive a motor vehicle in bad weather, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to show up for work and it doesn’t mean you can’t be fired if you are an at-will employee. If your workplace is open for business, you may have to find alternative means of getting there – telecommute, if possible, or use your leave if you can’t get to work. For commercial drivers, such as truck drivers, your rights to refuse to operate a vehicle in bad weather are protected under federal law.
Commercial drivers have a legal right to refuse to drive in bad weather if the vehicle cannot be operated safely. For commuters, you'll have to find an alternative way to perform your work.
For most employees, commuting back and forth is not part of company time. Your refusal to drive in bad weather matters when you can’t find another way to get to work. If you are an at-will employee – and most employees are – you can be fired for not showing up, regardless of why. Many companies that have essential workers, like hospitals and public safety agencies, often offer employees rides to work, and some employees spend the night at work rather than commute home in bad weather.
One exception is when you are a non-exempt employee who drives a company vehicle to and from work. Your commuting to work could be considered paid company time, so your refusal rights may be different. It’s best to speak with your human resources or dispatcher before bad weather hits.
In all cases of operating a company vehicle, employees have the right to be safe. After all, inclement weather can hit while you’re conducting business in a company vehicle. Regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, require your employer to maintain the safety of vehicles and to train company drivers in safe handling of the vehicle in bad weather, as well as what to do in case of an accident or emergency. Your employee handbook or other guidance should advise you of what to do if this happens. Your employer has your safety in mind, as well as company liability if you are injured, so driving for work need not be an adversarial process. Simply explain your situation, preferably ahead of time, and work out an arrangement.
If you are a commercial driver, federal law has instituted certain protections for you, but they are not necessarily a way out of work on the day of bad weather. Under title 49 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, you are required to use “extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle” under hazardous conditions, like snow, ice, sleet, fog, rain and mist. You must drive slower, and “if conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated.”
Paul Taylor, an attorney for the Truckers Justice Center, says this guidance is foggy, and it doesn’t provide a clear case when you have the right to refuse to drive. However, under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, or STAA, your employer can’t fire or discipline you if you refuse to drive a commercial vehicle in violation of federal safety regulations, says Taylor. Your boss also can’t fire you if you have “reasonable apprehension” of serious injury because of the vehicle's unsafe condition.
Taylor says only a handful of cases of violation of STAA due to bad weather have been heard. In a few, firings have been upheld by judges. In one case, for example, a driver refused to drive hours before bad weather was predicted to come. The opinion in that case was that the driver should have waited to have the most recent weather information before making a decision. If you believe you’ve been wrongly fired or disciplined for refusing to drive, you have the right to a hearing by OSHA, and you can appeal OSHA’s decision before an administrative judge. If you are successful, you could be entitled to your job, back pay, legal fees and other damages.