Big Texas Corporations Demand Storm Survivors Go Without Pay

·6 min read
The Washington Post/Mark Felix/Getty
The Washington Post/Mark Felix/Getty

DALLAS—First they had to deal with a nightmare of a winter storm, an historic assault that wiped out their power, heat, water, or all three at once.

Now they have to deal with bosses denying them pay.

Internal company emails and text messages obtained by The Daily Beast indicate that dozens of employers in Texas, many of them in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, have told people who were unable to go to work or work remotely due to loss of electricity during last week’s destructive winter storm that they must consider the lost days as vacation, or otherwise go without pay.

These are not small businesses, either. Several large companies are among them, such as Bell Textron Inc.—formerly known as Bell Helicopter—United Ag & Turf, BAE Systems, and the City of Dallas itself.

And workers are seething.

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“We are required to use vacation on the days of the storm when I had no heat or WiFi, or I can forfeit the money and not get paid,” a Bell Helicopter employee, who like other workers quoted in this report spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, told The Daily Beast.

“I’m disappointed and nervous about the next year,” the worker said, adding, “Even though I’m salaried, I’m entry-level, and any knock to my income will put me on the street—and that’s terrifying.”

Representatives from Bell did not return a call or email requesting comment, but emails sent by management and reviewed by The Daily Beast made the policy clear.

“Employees who are unable to fully dedicate their time and attention to company business due to current conditions should use available PTO, vacation, or holiday flex time if they wish to be paid for today. Otherwise, employees who do not have any remaining PTO, vacation, or holiday flex time or do not wish to use their unused PTO, vacation, or holiday flex time will not be paid for today,” read an email sent last week from Bell executive management.

The worker told The Daily Beast that Bell facilities were closed the entire week, but that at one point they were unable to access the VPN–a “virtual private network” that allows them to access company systems—meaning many employees at Bell couldn’t work from home even when they had electricity.

Executives at United Ag & Turf—a John Deere equipment dealer—and managers at BAE Systems—a British multinational arms, security, and aerospace company—sent similar messages. But they also allowed employees to effectively borrow paid time off, which would come out of their future allotments or pay, according to emails reviewed by The Daily Beast.

Some employees did not appreciate the offer.

“[I] just felt like people should know. It’s not right,” an employee at BAE Systems told The Daily Beast.

A spokesperson for BAE Systems told The Daily Beast, “As a government contractor, there are regulations we must follow for labor charged by our employees. The events of last week are unusual and we are working with employees on how to properly handle any time they were unable to work. In addition, we activated our Immediate Response Program to support our colleagues and provide financial assistance to affected employees and their families.”

Employees at United Ag & Turf, meanwhile, were even told they must take responsibility for maintaining a time-off balance in case such events occur in the future. This despite the devastating storm and the associated power crisis being “the largest insurance claim event in Texas history.”

“To be prepared for circumstances like this in the future, each employee is expected to manage their PTO and encouraged to always carry a balance for unexpected situations like health issues and bad weather. This type of assistance will not be offered in the future,” read an email from the executive management of United Ag & Turf.

United Ag & Turf did not respond to a request for comment.

“I feel angry. They could have said nothing and been fine. They could have paid people for the canceled days and looked like heroes. They instead opted to add insult to injury,” said a worker at United Ag & Turf.

For-profit employers are not the only ones who have told their employees that they must use their vacation days. Even some government employees have been affected: An email sent to the library department at the City of Dallas told employees to use personal leave time for lost work. The veracity of the email was confirmed by a Dallas City Council member, Adam Bazaldua, as well as a city communications representative, Catherine Cuellar.

“It’s really disheartening that HR (who have worked entirely from home for the past year, by the way) get to just decide whether people get paid or not,” one city employee said.

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Cuellar told the Daily Beast that for those without available paid time off, they can either “make up time within the pay period” or apply for emergency administrative paid leave, which would then have to be approved by FEMA.

“Nobody gets to ‘just decide’ anything; we have processes and layers of accountability for taxpayer dollars,” she said.

“So it becomes a question at the federal government level whether or not paying that worker emergency administrative pay was a necessary expense during the weather event,” Cuellar added.

“That has been the city’s policy for emergency weather-related pay for a decade,” she said.

When asked whether the policy could be changed to cover all employees, Cuellar said that things would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Austin Kaplan, an employment lawyer based in Austin, described these situations as a consequence of a lack of adequate labor protections in a state with notoriously weak safeguards for workers.

“There’s no requirement in Texas that people pay any vacation time at all. There’s just no safety net, or anything like that,” Kaplan told The Daily Beast.

This means that it’s been entirely up to employers to decide how to handle the fallout. Some, like Cisco, not only paid their employees for the lost days, but also offered offices as a shelter and sent resources for mental-health support.

But it appears they are in the minority. And without any clear sign of the government taking action—Gov. Greg Abbott has hinted at relief for workers facing sky-high electric bills, but little else—they appear to be on their own.

“In my estimation, the state that turned the power grid off ought to be the one paying,” Kaplan said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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