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BusinessColumnistsCarrie Mason-Draffen

Cold comfort for workers in overly air-conditioned offices

When it's a steamy summer day, and the

When it's a steamy summer day, and the office feels like Madison, Wis. on Feb. 4, 2007, what can freezing workers do? Photo Credit: AP / David Sandell

DEAR CARRIE: My wife and two other women work in a small office where the air conditioning goes down to 69 degrees. One of them loves the cold air. But the other two don't, and they cope by putting on sweaters and draping blankets over their legs. Do any laws mandate minimum air-conditioning temperatures in the workplace? -- Summertime Shivers

DEAR SUMMERTIME: You hit upon a timely topic. A recent Dutch study showed that many women shiver in air-conditioned offices while their male counterparts work comfortably because modern climate control systems are still based on the body temperatures and metabolism of men.

So the women in your wife's office aren't alone.

But such conditions probably don't violate any laws because they don't rise to the level of a safety or health hazard. Federal rules require employers "to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

An extreme-weather ailment called cold stress falls into that category and could prompt a visit from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces workplace safety. That condition bedevils workers who toil in extreme outdoor temperatures. The symptoms include a dramatic drop in skin and body temperatures.

"This may lead to serious health problems and may cause tissue damage and possibly death," OSHA's website says.

The upshot for the two shivering women in your wife's office is that they wouldn't be able to enlist OSHA's help to turn the thermostat up. So all three should agree on a compromise temperature they can live with and try to determine how much money the company would save for each degree the air conditioning is raised. Casting their battle in terms of dollars and cents saved (or squandered) could move management to warm things up.

DEAR CARRIE: A woman in our organization was a full-time exempt employee, but now, at her request, is hourly and works three days a week: Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Our employer gives us eight paid holidays a year. If one of those holidays falls on a day she is not scheduled to work, is the company obligated to pay her for the day? She has been getting paid for all holidays that fall on her regularly scheduled work days, even though she is not required to work. But the issue now is whether she is entitled to holiday pay for days she is not scheduled to work. -- Holiday Pay or Not

DEAR HOLIDAY: Whether any employees are paid for holidays at all is up to the company, unless a union contract or employment agreement says otherwise. Companies don't have to offer benefits; so when they do, they can set the rules. And as long as they honor their written policies or practices, they won't run afoul of the state Labor Department on that note.

DEAR CARRIE: I am on disability and receive a check every month. At one point, my ex-employer disputed my claim, and the checks stopped coming. The payments were withheld until I was seen by several doctors to determine if I was still eligible for benefits. The doctors certified that I was, and after nine months, the checks resumed. I received a lump sum to bring the payments up to date, and a big chunk of taxes was taken out. The amount was far greater then if the taxes had been deducted monthly. Can I claim this as a loss on my taxes, or can I make a claim to my ex-employer for the difference? -- Tax Bite

DEAR TAX: Claiming the bigger bite when you file your income taxes would be the better route. I don't see how you can demand that your employer pay your tax bill.

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