With the re-opening of a number of British airports today (at least temporarily), it appears that the (chaos-causing) dust may be finally beginning to settle following last week's volcanic eruption. However, as a number of stranded or delayed staff start to return to work in the coming days, employers are faced with the dilemma of what to do in practical terms when staff are unable to come to work effectively through no fault of their own.

  • The key issue for many employers, is whether they are required to pay staff for the days when they are unable to catch a flight home. Ultimately, it is the employee who is responsible for getting to work and if an employee has failed to turn up for work due to cancelled or delayed flights he or she has no automatic right to be paid (unless their contract of employment states otherwise). However, in taking this strict approach, employers may wish to balance this against potential negative consequences such as a reduction in staff morale. This may particularly arise where staff are stranded as a result of business-related travel and employers are advised to treat such situations leniently.
  • Alternatively, employers may choose to take a more flexible approach by agreeing to treat the time off as special paid leave or requiring the employee to take the time off as paid annual leave so that he or she is not out of pocket. If the employee has already used up their leave entitlement for that year, employers may wish to consider allowing them to use up next year's entitlement.
  • As different employees may be off for different lengths of time, from one or two days to a week or more, employers may choose to consider their approach on a case-by-case basis. However, employers should ensure that they treat similar cases in a consistent manner in order to avoid opening themselves up to a grievance or allegation of discrimination.
  • Finally, in order to minimise any disruption insofar as possible, employers should ask employees to keep in regular contact to advise of their likely return date so that they can arrange suitable cover. Employers should encourage two-way communication with employees and as flights begin to get off the ground again, employers may wish to advise employees of reasonable timescales within which they expect to see them back at work. Where possible, employers may also wish to consider requesting that employees work remotely by using hotel or airport business facilities or via their blackberries/laptops (assuming employees took them along on holiday).

Whilst it is certainly not often the case that employees are kept away from the workplace by clouds of volcanic ash, there are a number of other situations, such as the travel chaos during the 'big freeze', or flight cancellations due to terror threats or other acts of God, where employers will have to adopt a similar approach. In order to be prepared for any similar issues in the future, employers may wish to consider developing a catch-all policy dealing with 'no fault' absences from work which gives clear guidance for staff and sets expectations for all parties at the outset.