With talk of the UK experiencing its first white Christmas since 2010, how do you prepare your business for the colder months ahead?
Traffic delays, tube chaos, rail strikes and cancellations are just a few inevitable consequences of bad weather that can result in costly staff absences. As we approach winter, in order to minimise workplace disruption, employers should think about implementing an adverse weather policy and strategy for their company. This type of policy will ensure that employees are aware of what is expected of them during periods of unforeseen bad weather and example documents and templates can be found online.
Peninsula is an employment law consultancy that offers a HR advice hotline for companies. In recent years, Peninsula has recorded an increase in calls from employers requiring urgent advice for extreme weather conditions like March 2018’s Storm Emma and ‘beast from the east’. The snow experienced in March of this year significantly lowered commercial activity, reported to have cost the UK economy £1bn per day (the worst financial impact due to bad weather since winter of 2010).
Read on to find out more about employees’ rights, and how to effectively deal with travel disruptions to and from the workplace.
Public Transport Delays & Closures
Employers should try to be fair and flexible when bad weather results in employees being late or unable to attend work. All employees are required to notify management as soon as possible and there is no legal right for staff to be paid for working time that they have missed because of travel disruption.
Alternative arrangements should be provided and stated in a business’s policy for adverse weather and unforeseen circumstances. These provisions will differ depending on the business industry, nature of work and type of employee contracts.
Options can include:
- For part-time work, offering staff who are able to get to work the chance to work overtime or swap shifts with those who can’t.
- Agreement for workers to take time off as paid annual leave. This arrangement will help employees who are unable to get to work but still need to get paid for that month.
Note: It should be mentioned that if an employer wants to ask staff to take paid holiday because of travel disruptions, they are entitled to do so but only if they give the correct notice. The correct notice period is double the length of leave time - so 1 day annual leave would require 2 days of notice. Due to the quickly changing nature of bad weather employers can’t rely on this short-notice provision.
- Giving employees the option to work from home for a temporary period until the weather improves.
- Implementing flexible working to allow employees to make up any lost working time in lieu.
Employer-Provided Transport Issues
If employer-provided transport is cancelled due to bad weather and travel disruptions and the employer has a contractual obligation to provide transport for employees, staff members should be paid for any working time that they have missed. This is a less common scenario and mainly relevant for more rural areas where transport vehicles or bus services are provided to and from work.
When Management Decide to Close the Premises
If an employer decides to shut down work premises because of bad weather or other reasons out of their control, they are required to inform staff as soon as possible. If a business closes when employees would otherwise have been able to work, employees are typically entitled to their normal pay (the exception to this is if the employment contract states provision allowing for unpaid lay-off). This includes situations where:
- Working hours are reduced
- The business is partially or fully closed
- Staff who provide access to work premises are unable to get to work
Some business contracts and workplace policies will state what should be done in such circumstances, this could include working from home or from the nearest accessible workplace. Please bear in mind that for zero-hour contracts, employers have the contractual right to decline to offer work at short notice.
Taking Time Off for Dependents - School Closures / Childcare Issues
Following Storm Caroline in December 2017, more than 500 schools in the east of England and 200 schools in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire were shut down due to bad weather. Whilst snow days bring joy to students, school closures can be frustrating and difficult for working parents.
Headteachers usually determine whether or not to close their schools, and these decisions are made by risk assessing the health and safety of their pupils in line with the Department of Education’s guidelines. When temperatures drop significantly, factors taken into consideration include:
- Ice and the state of steps, paths and slopes in and around the school
- Ice and the condition of local roads and pathways
- Availability of public transport and school coaches
- Heating failures and / or burst water pipes (classrooms must be heated and maintained above 18’c)
- Future weather forecasts
- Usual catering being provided
When this happens, schools are often forced to close at the last minute, leaving parents unable to get into work for that morning. In this situation, the law states that parents have the right to take dependant leave (dependants refer to anyone that depend on an individual’s care). This leave refers to time taken off during working hours to deal with unforeseen events and emergencies. There is no set limit to how much time can be taken off; the statutory right is to an unpaid ‘reasonable’ amount of time to make alternative arrangements for dependants.
Employees should contact their employer as soon as they know that they might need to take time off, disclosing:
- The exact issue
- The likely length of absence
- Action being taken to resolve the issue
Under these circumstances, employers are advised to be flexible and consider options that will assist their employees, such as working from home or discussing alternative working hours. Employees are entitled to contact their local Citizens Advice if employers refuse leave or take disciplinary action against them.
Policy Documents & Disciplinary Action
Having a policy document in place helps when deciding whether disciplinary action against an employee is necessary. If an employer believes an employee has taken advantage of a situation for their own benefit (such as taking unnecessary absence from work for a duvet day), they have the right to take action. If possible, the first point of call for employers is to raise their concerns by talking to the employee informally.
For more serious cases, employers can decide to start a disciplinary procedure that could lead to disciplinary action and, in extreme cases, dismissal.
Employers should follow the Acas Code of Practice when taking disciplinary action against an employee. The Code of Practice sets standards of fairness that both employers and employees are expected to follow when dealing with a dispute. Whilst employers are not required by law to follow this, if an employee takes their employer to an employment tribunal and wins the case, the business will be expected to pay more in compensation for not following the code and appropriate conduct.
The key to avoiding issues and disputes over travel disruptions is to keep fair, honest and clear communication between both parties. For employers, common sense and judgement on the severity of the travel disruptions will determine the most suitable course of action. All employees should be given equal treatment in line with the business’s policy document.
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