The weather has turned colder with snow and ice causing travel disruption, so it is safe to say that winter is officially here… but legally where does that leave employees who are unable to attend work becasue they are ‘snowed in’ or due to adverse travel conditions or school closures?
You may be surprised to know that the general position is that there is no automatic right to be paid should you not be able to get to work because you are ‘snowed in’ or because of travel disruption and bad weather. However, it is also wise to check your employment contract and staff handbook to see if there are any clauses (or collective agreements) which govern what happens in the event of weather disruption, such as employees can be asked to work from home or at an alternative location, use their holiday entitlement or even take unpaid leave. If the contract of employment is silent, it is less likely that an employer could follow a course of action which subjects staff to a detriment, such as insisting that they take annual leave – treating genuine weather-related absences as unpaid leave could even expose an employer to unlawful deduction from wages claims.
A few key exceptions to the general position exist. One is when a business provides transportation to employees to reach their place of work but the service does not run due to hazardous weather. In such circumstances, you would be entitled to be paid.
Another is if a place of work has to close due to adverse weather. In this scenario, pay cannot be deducted from employees unless an alternative option (such as working from home or an alternative location) is possible.
Some employers may make informal arrangements in the event employees are unable to reach work, such as discretionary pay, allowing them to come in later than normal should conditions improve or working additional hours to make up for lost time.
Employees with families will also need to consider their position in the event that schools, child care facilities or care providing facilities for dependent relatives are closed. In these circumstances, employees cannot be forced to work, but would instead have the right to take unpaid time off to look after dependents – school closures falling under the ambit of an emergency situation. Employers wishing for their absent employee to use holidays to cover such absences should give notice at least double the length of the period of leave in question – which in an emergency situation is extremely unlikely to be a practical option.
Guidance by ACAS is that prompt communication between employers and employee are vital when adverse weather impacts on the normal working day: employees notifying businesses if they are unable to reach work as soon as possible and employers providing procedures on managing adverse weather to staff.
In relation to the effect of artic conditions at work, we probably all know someone who is forever complaining about the temperature of the office but do employees actually have the right to be sent home should their place of work become too cold? The answer is that although the Health and Safety Executive recommends a minimum of 16C for those of us who are desk bound, 13C for those who aren’t, there is no legal requirement governing this area. Instead, ACAS guidance advocates employer flexibility and practical ways of keeping warm, including employees wearing winter woollies, taking more frequent tea breaks as well as the provision of additional heating. Responsible employers should consider sending particularly vulnerable employees home to protect their health, such as individuals with disabilities which make them more prone to the cold, or pregnant employees.
Fingers crossed everyone stays safe on their journeys to and from work and we are not seeing the return of the Beast from the East or a big freeze which lasts for weeks – despite the potential opportunity to dust off the sledge, spring can’t come soon enough for most of us!
For advice on employees being ‘snowed in’ and weather-related disruptions to the workplace, a review of your contracts of employment and staff handbooks, or support on any other aspect of Employment Law or HR practice, please contact our employment team located in Newcastle and Teesside.