Temperatures are dipping below freezing and many areas of the country are already covered in snow. These arctic conditions can make it difficult to get to work, particularly when transport is cancelled or delayed and schools are closed. We offer some guidance for employers on how to deal with winter weather related absence.

1. Payment

It is the employee's responsibility to get to work so 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. Employers should try to be understanding and also consistent in their approach.

2. Annual leave

An employer cannot force an employee to take annual leave without giving sufficient notice (twice as long as the proposed period of leave). However, where staff who have been unable to get to work want to take the time as paid annual leave, employers should try to accommodate this unless there is a reason not to.

3. Flexible working

Be flexible to minimise disruption. 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 remote access. Alternatively, it may be possible for staff to work at a different office or site that is easier for them to reach.

4. 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.

5. School closures and other emergencies

Employees have a right to take unpaid time off to deal with an unexpected emergency affecting a dependent. A school closure will fall into this category and affected employees have a right to unpaid time off, provided they comply with the notification procedures. Alternatively, they may be able to make up the time later. It is unclear whether the time off to care for dependent regulations would allow a full day or days off. It is intended to provide breathing space to allow working parents to deal with an ‘emergency’. If the school closure is prolonged, arguably it stops being an emergency and the onus is on the employee to make alternative childcare arrangements. This could be the case with even a one-day closure (i.e. a couple of hours to make alternative arrangements is fine but a full day off may not be). However, taking a strict view of what counts as an emergency may be counter-productive. Employers must also be careful not to discriminate between different groups: e.g. it may be unlawful to treat those absent because of caring responsibilities for adults less favourably than employees who take time off to look after children sent home from school.

6. Health and safety

While employers may be keen to encourage staff to attend work, they should balance this with the duty of care to employees. Where weather conditions make it unsafe to travel, undue pressure 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. This could involve ensuring the workplace is a reasonable temperature, 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 surfaces more treacherous.

7. 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.