Last year we experienced the "big freeze" and if the current arctic conditions continue we may be in for an even bigger freeze this winter. With many people unable to make it into work and others being called away as schools close or transport links submit to the weather, employers are left with the question of how to deal with weather-related absence. We have put together a ten-point guide for employers on managing this issue.
Often the key question is whether staff should be paid for any time off. As it is the employee's responsibility to get to work, they have no automatic right to be paid if they fail to turn up, unless their contract states otherwise. However, a strict 'no-pay' position may seem overly harsh, and affect staff morale, especially as we approach the festive season. Some employers may already have in place a system of discretionary payment for travel disruption and others may be taking more ad-hoc decisions as to whether to pay employees who cannot attend work through no fault of their own. Indeed individual managers may be treating different groups of workers differently. Whatever the business decision, employers should communicate clearly what their policy or practice will be to avoid confusion, inconsistency and disagreement.
Employers who have a policy in place, which deals with "no-fault" absences, should enforce it consistently and transparently. You should also remind managers and employees of the policy as soon as possible. If there is no policy in place, employers should communicate with employees to let them know what the arrangements will be, what is expected of them and the employer's practice on payment for missed days. This is a good time to review an existing policy or put in place an adverse weather and travel disruption policy, if you do not already have one.
3. Minimise disruption
In order to minimise disruption, employers will need to develop a system to ensure that they know as soon as possible when employees, particularly key staff members, are unlikely to be able to come in to work. Staff should be encouraged to contact their line manager as soon as possible if the weather means they are either unable to attend work, will be arriving late or will require to leave early. When speaking to employees, managers should explore different ways in which they could get to work if their usual transport is unavailable and ask that they keep you updated on their expected return date. Managers and staff should also consider how flexible options and the use of technology could ensure that work can still be completed.
4. Flexible working
Minimum disruption is likely to be best achieved by taking a flexible approach. One option is to allow staff to use any flexi-time arrangements that they have in their contract and make up any out of office time at a later date. Where possible, employers could allow staff to work from home using secure remote access systems if available, or cloud-based document systems for items that do not require high levels of security. Alternatively it may be possible for staff to work at a different office or site that is easier for them to reach.
5. Annual or unpaid leave
Where staff have been unable to come in to work or take advantage of flexible working, they may ask, often retrospectively or on the day, to take the time as paid annual leave. It will be necessary to check holiday rules, but an employer may well take a flexible approach in these circumstances. From the employer's perspective, they may want employees to take such time off as paid holiday. Unless otherwise agreed with employees, an employer must give notice of at least twice the length of the proposed holiday if staff are to be required to take part of their statutory holiday entitlement to cover for days lost to the weather. If the alternative to using up holiday entitlement is a loss of pay, most employees would probably agree to take holidays. However, where staff have no holiday entitlement remaining, or are keen to use holidays at another time, they may be happy to agree to taking unpaid leave.
6. School closures and other emergencies
Employees have a right to take time off to deal with an unexpected emergency affecting a dependent. A school closure will fall into this category and employees in that situation will have a right to unpaid time off, provided they comply with the notification procedures. Alternatively they may be able to make up the time at another time, which may be a fairer way of dealing with the situation. Employers must be careful not to discriminate between different groups, e.g. it may be unlawful to treat those absent because of caring responsibilities for disabled parents less favourably than employees who take time off to deal with children sent home from school.
7. Business related obstacles
Employees who would have been able to get into the office, but a business related reason (such as business travel) has prevented them from doing so should be treated leniently. If the office has been closed then staff should be paid, as they no longer have the opportunity to attend work.
8. Health and safety
While employers may be keen to encourage staff to attend work, they should balance this with their duty of care to employees. Where weather conditions make it unsafe to travel, undue pressure on employees to attend work could leave the employer liable for any accidents that occur. Employers also have a duty to ensure that they keep their work premises safe and this could involve clearing access routes of snow and ice, gritting in accordance with government guidelines and taking reasonable care that any action taken does not, in fact, make the surfaces more treacherous.
9. Disciplinary proceedings
Employers concerned that some people are using the snow as an excuse to take a day off when they would be able to get into the office can treat the absence as a disciplinary matter and could invoke their normal disciplinary procedure. It is important to ensure that a consistent approach to cases is taken. The matter should be fully investigated and handled reasonably and fairly, allowing the employee an opportunity to explain their position.
10. Consistent approach
To avoid claims of discrimination, unfair detriment and feelings of resentment among staff (particularly those who fight the freeze to make their way in to work) employers should make sure that a consistent approach is taken and that policies, practices and arrangements are clearly communicated.