Storms like Jonas challenge veterinary practices

Practitioners discuss staffing, transportation during inclement weather

February 3, 2016 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kathy Tuhacek
About 30 inches of snow fell last week at Dr. Kathy Tuhacek's residence in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. For work, Tuhacek commutes 11 miles to a practice in Green Lane. The facility closed for two days due to winter storm Jonas, she said.

When a blizzard strikes, the first question on Dr. Christopher Byers' mind involves road conditions. Are they closed to the public? And if so, do veterinary hospital employees have the OK to drive on them? 

“I remember when I entered clinics in vet school, I (and all my classmates) were given permits from the New York Department of Transportation that said we were considered ‘essential hospital personnel’ and thus could drive on closed roads,” he said in a discussion on the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. “Without that, I don't know what options one has."

Now that winter storm Jonas, one of largest blizzards in recorded history, has dissipated, veterinarians are reflecting on the power major storms have to leave businesses, including veterinary practices, at a standstill. They're also considering what they expect of themselves and their employees during periods of inclement weather, particularly when it comes to staffing round-the-clock emergency practices and caring for critical in-house patients.

Byers, board-certified in emergency/critical care and small animal internal medicine, now works in Omaha, Nebraska, and says bad weather can make staffing any veterinary practice challenging. When winter storm Jonas pummeled the northeastern United States last weekend, killing at least 48 people from Southern Virginia to New York City, Byers maintained that emergency veterinary practices and hospitalized patients shouldn't be left unattended, despite hazardous weather conditions.

Employees can't be expected to break the law by driving on closed roads, Byers said. But if they're open, he added, staff are expected to show for shifts, and it's up to practice owners to ensure that employees have access to food and nearby hotel rooms, if needed. If the roads are open, then by the strictest sense, employees are supposed to show up for their shifts, Byers said. If they don't, there may be consequences. Emergency hospital staff can contact their state department of transportation to see if they can be given essential personnel permits.

In the absence of those permits, an employer can plan in advance and set up rooms at nearby hotels.

“When I worked in Maryland/metro D.C., we had a hotel nearby (walking distance) and we would book some rooms for folks during storms. We didn't want our staff driving long distances, but also needed to ensure 24/7 staffing. It worked pretty well for us,” Byers said.

It’s not always that simple, other veterinarians say.

One morning when leaving work, Dr. Karen Burns discovered the roads were covered with black ice. She had no experience driving on ice, and she did not dare try. A police officer drove her to a hotel in her own car, and then the hospital manager picked her up for her evening shift.

“There is no way I would have driven myself, I was petrified,” Burns said. “I live in Austin, and we just don't know how to drive in snow/ice. We really don't have a policy, but I know I am expected to show up and I will as long as someone will come and get me. We have no place to sleep so staying here is really not much of an option.”

Byers knows that Burns isn't alone in her reluctance to travel in bad weather. He suggests discussing what's expected of veterinary hospital staff before weather-related disasters strike. That way, everyone knows what's expected of them, and they can plan to best manage the situation.

Despite a plan and provisions, team members may have personal reasons for needing to be home during a blizzard or ice storm.

“Consider your staff and who and what they live with,” advised Dr. Lisa Ethridge, who works in a practice in Flagstaff, Arizona that offers late-night urgent care.

Ethridge explained that she’s single with many dogs, goats and chickens at home. “Asking me to stay at work for an unlimited number of days would literally kill my animals,” she said. “And yes, I have friends, but given this situation is enough of an emergency that I have trouble getting home, asking another person to get to my home does not seem safe or fair.”

She noted that some of her co-workers are single parents who care for elderly and unwell family members, making it a real hardship to leave home for extended time periods.

“I believe that having some thought to what being away from a home for 48 to 72 hours would do to the home should be considered for all people who work for and with you,” she added. “And yes, supplying a hotel room and food is necessary if you require people to stay.”

Ethridge’s hospital does not have a inclement weather policy, and she doesn’t know of a doctor on staff who has missed a shift due due to bad road conditions.

Shuttling employees in bad weather could eliminate some transportation problems, said Dr. Tony Johnson, a board-certified specialist in emergency in critical care who used to work at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine.

During his tenure at Purdue, Johnson said most nearby commuters relied on vehicles with four-wheel-drive, which many drivers say best navigate the snow. Employees without such a vehicle sometimes were shuttled by a maintenance worker who drove one.

“I've never known of an official policy (there),” Johnson said. “It was always just do the best you can do and stay safe. We made it up on the fly. Everybody chipped in to try and get people where they needed to be to help the patients. You can't rule someone to come in if they can't come in.”

Human hospitals plan ahead for weather-related emergencies, said Lisa Brunette, spokeswoman for the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, where blizzards are common.

“If a snow emergency is declared, we have drivers (employees) who will use appropriate, safe vehicles to bring needed staff in,” she said. “They can also be used to take employees home safely. In certain situations we can make rooms available for staff to stay overnight if required.”

Creating an inclement-weather policy

  • Clarify staff expectations for when roads are closed and when driving is permitted but conditions are dangerous.
  • Map out and provide nearby hotel accommodations.
  • Arrange transportation for employees during storms.
  • Permit employees to bring their pets to work during weather-related emergencies.
  • Ask the state department of transportation about essential personnel permits and how staff might obtain them.
  • Inquire with your hospital’s insurance broker about any potential liability related to employees driving to work.
  • Contact the state department of labor to ask about possible regulations related to requiring employees to drive to work during inclement weather.
  • Consider overtime pay for the duration of a storm, and ask staff to volunteer for those shifts rather than requiring it.
  • Ask local firefighters or police for help with transporting employees.

Laws and liability?

Employees may wonder if a claim to their personal car insurance policy can be denied for choosing to drive in bad weather. Not so, said Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute.

“Unless you drove when intoxicated or were speeding, you would still be covered,” she said. “Obviously there's a greater risk, but that's taken into consideration with your policy.”

Worters recommends that employers carry business-related auto coverage to protect practices from lawsuits in the event that someone is hurt while using a company vehicle. Employees, she said, should request proof of coverage before getting into a company vehicle.

Federal laws do not preclude employers from requiring their staff to come into work during a storm. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration covers at-job work risks, not transportation to and from the office.

“Under OSHA’s federal law, Section 11c specifically as this statute applies in this instance, there is no protection for refusing to drive to work under hazardous conditions since the hazard is not to workers at the worksite but to the public,” explained Nancy Cleeland, deputy director of communications at the U.S. Department of Labor.

State laws and regulations, however, might be in place to protect employees as they travel to and from work. Information on such protections can be found within a state’s labor department.

Dr. Teri Oursler said she's never had a inclement weather policy in place during the 19 years she owned a small Wyoming practice, roughly 75 miles east of Yellowstone National Park. Now retired from practice, Oursler said she wouldn't have expected employees to drive on bad roads for work. Only one storm was so brutal that it prevented her from getting to the clinic, and she accepted it for what it was. 

“I can't help (patients) from a body bag after a car wreck,” Oursler said.  

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.