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The cost of eclipse fever for workplaces? It could be $694 million

Monday is eclipse day and also, alas, a workday. It might not feel that way, though, as the clock ticks toward 11:54 a.m. and workers across Chicago abandon their desks to glimpse, hopefully without long-term eye damage, what for many will be a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical phenomenon.

"It's pretty hard to imagine that every single person in the office is not going to stream out to take part in this," said Andrew Challenger, vice president at Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

That is assuming they show up to work at all and don't high-tail it to southern Illinois, square in the "path of totality," which state officials expect to be overrun with up to 200,000 sky-gazers eager to see the moon completely obscure the sun — an event unseen in Illinois in nearly 150 years.

Eclipse fever could cost employers $694 million nationwide, and $28 million in Chicago, from lost productivity, according to a Challenger calculation. That estimate assumes everyone working during the eclipse takes 20 minutes off to watch, and doesn't account for the time spent debriefing with colleagues after.

But employers should be careful about trying to rein in the enthusiasm.

"It could be doubly costly in terms of employee retention and morale if you try to stop people," Challenger said. "Are you really going to ask people to not walk outside and experience this celestial wonder happening above them?"

Some employers are doing the opposite and holding space-themed watch parties to celebrate, using the opportunity for employee bonding and to show off how cool it is to have a rooftop deck.

Conveniently, Chicago's view of the eclipse, albeit a partial one, will take place around lunchtime, from 11:54 a.m. to 2:42 p.m.; the maximum eclipse visible from Chicago, when the moon will block 87 percent of the sun, is expected at 1:19 p.m.

Slalom Consulting, whose Prudential Plaza offices overlook Lake Michigan and Millennium Park, is inviting employees to the building's 11th-floor rooftop patio for a brown-bag lunch with relevant treats: Milky Way bars, Eclipse gum, Sun Chips, MoonPies, and four decorated cookie cakes in the shape of the sun and moon.

"We look for opportunities to be spontaneous," said Amber Heinrich, marketing manager, who expects about 200 of the 650 team members in Chicago to be at the office Monday (most work at client sites). It is also a timely chance for the 25 new analysts who recently started at the firm to meet their colleagues and experience the company culture, she said.

The Prudential Plaza concierge will hand out eclipse glasses to building tenants, Heinrich said, and Slalom will have five pinhole cameras and another 40 pairs of eclipse glasses it ordered as backup from a provider recommended by the American Astronomical Society.

Keeping employees from burning their retinas should be top of mind for employers during eclipse celebrations, employment attorneys advise. Viewing an eclipse without proper eye protection can cause blurred or distorted vision and even temporary or permanent vision loss, according to the American Society of Retina Specialists.

Employers who sponsor an event should provide proper glasses — and make sure they're not among the fakes circulating — and even those just giving time off for employees to observe the eclipse should provide information regarding safe viewing practices, said Paul Bateman, labor and employment attorney in the Chicago office of Littler Mendelson.

Employers can be held liable if there is an injury during a work-related activity, though it isn't clear a voluntary eclipse party is "work-related." It's better to be safe than sorry, Bateman said.

Nadine Abrahams, chair of employment litigation in the Chicago office of Jackson Lewis, recommends employers send an email asserting the event is voluntary and that employees assume the risk. Some employers are getting employees to sign waivers, she said.

"There is a potential for a workers' compensation claim, though I think the possibility is very slim," she said.

Eclipse glasses will be on hand at the Ravenswood headquarters of Guaranteed Rate, which plans to host a viewing lunch on its 5,000-square-foot rooftop deck for the 650 employees at that office.

The cosmos-themed menu, created by the in-house chef that makes daily lunches for the office, will include a "blackout burger," "heavenly space dog," "galactic pasta" and "meteorite salad."

MillerCoors' midday employee soiree not only will have eclipse glasses available but also Blue Moon-branded pinhole coasters, a chance for the company to capitalize on its beer brand also named after a rare celestial event.

The "Moonday" party on its 16th-floor rooftop patio in the Loop will include MoonPies and Moon Cheese as well as specialty beers brought in from the company's Blue Moon RiNo Brewery in Denver and limited-edition glassware. It is hosting similar celebrations across the country.

Companies don't need the luxury of a rooftop deck to be festive.

BMO Harris is encouraging employees to attend the viewing at Daley Plaza, and has 10 employees volunteering at the Adler Planetarium for Eclipse Fest, a block party that will include eclipse trivia, solar car races and food trucks.

BMO, a presenting sponsor for the Adler eclipse events, also invited an astronomer from the Adler to give a talk about solar eclipses at a lunch-and-learn session for employees a few weeks ago at its Loop headquarters. Eclipse glasses were handed out.

Bank branch employees may pop out to watch the eclipse depending on staffing and local manager approval.

"We still have a business to run as well, so it really depends on manager discretion," said BMO spokesman Patrick O'Herlihy.

A potential headache for employers is the prospect of an empty office if everyone takes the day off last-minute.

Chicago and Cook County's new paid sick leave ordinances could make it easier for people to call in sick with eclipse fever because the laws don't permit employers to ask for a doctor's note for absences lasting fewer than three days, Jackson Lewis' Abrahams said. So unless workers out themselves, such as by posting to Facebook about their road trip to Carbondale, employers have to take their sick day at face value.

Employers should reiterate their attendance expectations in advance but not be stooges about it. It could help to set guidelines, such as allowing employees to take their lunch later in the day, during prime eclipse time, Abrahams said.

"If employers can be flexible, it helps with morale," she said.

Requests for time off, whether for 20 minutes or the whole day, also should be handled consistently so that a boss doesn't appear to be favoring one group over another, Littler's Bateman said. And employers should remember they have to reasonably accommodate religious requests, he said; some religions view the eclipse as a sign of the coming apocalypse, or have traditions to ward off bad luck they believe the eclipse brings.

Ultimately, Bateman doesn't think Monday's eclipse will be that huge of a workplace disruption. But he might be saying that because he will be spending it at the opposite end of the spectrum from a rooftop party with MoonPies.

"I plan to be in a deposition," the lawyer said. "I didn't know about the eclipse when we scheduled it."

aelejalderuiz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @alexiaer

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