Neil Buck: Bad weather affecting work – What should employers do about it?

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As the bad weather battered a large section of the country this weekend (although to be fair Lincoln escaped the predicted snowfall it seems!) and may continue/happen at any point over winter, it focuses employers attention on work being affected and how to manage the situation if an employee calls in to say they can’t make it into work (the ‘snowflake’ generation is an apt name here – what is the world coming to!).

The following advice is worth taking note of:

Are you legally obliged to pay employees who fail to make it to work because of adverse weather conditions?

Employees are obliged to attend work in terms of their contracts of employment. This applies even in extreme weather conditions. Therefore, you would be within your rights to refuse to pay an employee who cannot make it into work because they are ‘snowed in’ or because public transport has been cancelled due to the weather.

However, you should assess whether this would be in the interests of your business. It may be that the financial burden to the business of paying staff in these circumstances is outweighed by the benefits that such a gesture would have on staff morale and productivity in the long run.

As usual there is no single answer and there are different ways to tackle this.

There is no statutory right, only a contractual right to pay and as always you should refer to contracts of employment before taking any action. If an employee’s terms & conditions are silent on a particular point then you would revert the general consensus is that if the employee attends work then you should pay them, if they do not attend work then you do not need to pay them.

If there is no contractual right to pay this will obviously cause some friction with employees who blame the weather for them not getting to work thus not getting paid. Many employers are still paying employees at full pay when absent through the inability to get to work through snow. This clearly disadvantages the employer.

One alternative solution is to state that they won’t be getting paid, but allow the individual to take the time off as holiday. By doing this, the employees will have less holidays to take during the busy periods meaning a better attendance and also higher productivity. Be warned though, when requiring employees to take holiday you do need to provide appropriate notice which is defined as twice as many days as the duration of the leave. However, when faced with the option of no pay or taking holiday days, many employees will often agree to take holidays.

Practical solutions?

It is also worth thinking about alternative ways to manage the situation. This will, of course, be largely dependent on your business needs. For example, it may be worth giving employees the option to work from home when extreme weather conditions hit. For many businesses, this is becoming increasingly practical given that more and more employees have access to a laptop or a home computer that allows them to fulfil their duties from home temporarily. Other options are to allow employees to take the days off as part of their annual leave, or pay them but expect them to make up the time at a later date.

Should you be taking any steps now to prevent chaos when the bad weather hits?

If possible, it would be sensible to introduce a policy on adverse weather conditions, or amend your absence management policy to provide for such instances. Any such implementation or change to an existing policy should be communicated to all staff. You should put in place a procedure for employees to notify an appropriate person by a certain time if they have any problems getting into work.

To avoid any doubt, you should clarify whether employees will be paid for the days they are unable to get into work because of the weather, rather than risk giving them a nasty surprise when they receive their payslip.

You may also want to make it clear that employees are expected to make reasonable efforts to get into work (for example, using alternative travel arrangements).

However, employees should not feel pressured to risk their own safety to get into the office. Therefore, any policy should be as fair as possible and take into consideration the health and safety of employees.

What steps can you take if I suspect that an employee is using the weather conditions as an excuse for not turning up to work?

If you believe that an employee is using weather conditions as an excuse for absence or lateness, then you should reiterate the company’s policy on this issue. You should also make the employee aware that disciplinary action may be taken if they are suspected of using the weather conditions as an excuse for not attending work. If the absences become frequent, then you should take action in line with your disciplinary policy.

What about parents absent providing emergency childcare?

Another impact of the snow could be the closure of schools. Many parents have been absent from work to provide childcare. In this scenario employees are entitled to emergency time off to look after their dependents.

However, there is no statutory right to payment for this period. This would have to be a contractual right. You should refer to what your contract of employment states. Many employers choose to make payment in these circumstances, despite not being legally obliged to do so. As employers you can come to some other arrangement such as time off in lieu of overtime or holidays as in the scenario above.

What if the company has no work due to the weather?

If all of your employees make it to work but you have no work for them due to the weather, construction as a prime example, then you should pay them. When an employer closes due to weather they are actually laying employees off temporarily and employees will have the right to full pay.

Again, an employer can be disadvantaged in this case but there is a simple remedy as there are contractual terms that can be introduced which can assist employers facing such a situation. The right to temporarily lay off employees or instigate short time working at low pay can be built into contracts of employment. By having these tools in place, a Company can minimise the amount it will have to pay in these difficult times.

Lessons for the future?

There are two key lessons to learn for many employers who may be caught short this winter by snowfall:

  1. Try and allow employees to work from home in such situations where possible. This can be through improved use of advancing technology and allowing employees to use their pc’s to work from home. Or simply planning ahead and ensuring employees actually take work home when there is the possibility that they may not be able to get to the office.
  2. Review your contracts of employment/ handbook or introduce a stand-alone policy covering the eventuality of sustained absence from work through adverse weather conditions. Employers who have in place clear and concise policy covering inclement weather can effectively manage these troublesome periods with minimal damage to their revenue.