As more snow drives in, employers need to check the small print

9 March 2012

As more snow drives in, employers need to check the small print Companies hoping for a return to full production after December’s severe weather and Christmas look set to be disappointed with the first snowfall of January working its way across the country. As the chill continues, employers are being encouraged to act quickly to formulate or review their policy on absence due to severe weather, and to make sure that staff are aware of the company’s policy. This time last year, hundreds of millions of working hours were lost due to the weather conditions and 2011 is forecast to be as bad, if not worse. Employers whose output is drastically cut by staff absence may feel that it is only fair to refuse to pay staff who fail to make it to work; as it is the employee’s responsibility to get to their place of work. But an employer cannot always dock an employee’s wages on the grounds of absence as it depends on the circumstances. A healthy employee who lives fifteen minutes walk from the workplace hears reports of traffic chaos on the radio one morning. The trains are at a standstill and the Police are asking drivers to stay off the roads. The employee decides to use this as an excuse to spend the day at home. This is a disciplinary matter and he will not be entitled to pay. An employee who lives twenty miles from work hears the same story on the radio. He cannot get to work by train and to drive to work would be to go against official advice. The employer cannot reasonably expect him to travel to work and so different criteria apply; how he is treated will depend on his employment contract and the company’s severe weather policy. There are various ways in which these could treat the matter. The staff manual should encourage employees to consider alternative ways of getting to work, or, if there are none, it should encourage employees to work from home where this is possible. It should also remind employees of the terms of the employment contract. The contract might stipulate that the employee’s enforced absence will be treated as unpaid time off work. This would have to be clearly set out in the contract of employment because otherwise it would be probably treated as an unauthorised deduction from the employee’s pay. Or the absence could be treated as holiday. Again, this would need to be clearly set out in the employment contract because employers cannot unilaterally force employees to take holiday at a certain time. Thirdly, the contract might say that the absence will be paid, but the employee must make up the time later. Another problem which often arises is for parents of school age children when bad weather forces school closures. So what if the local school announces one morning that it has to close for the day, and employees have to stay at home to look after the kids? Again, company policy should be set out in the employment contract or staff manual. They might, for example, say that the employee can either take the time off as annual leave or as unpaid time off for a dependant. Said Alex Dean, employment expert with Chelmsford solicitors Gepp & Sons: “Having a clear policy that all employees are well aware of will avoid disputes and reduce avoidable absenteeism. Employers should always get advice on changes to the employment contract and to company policy in order to make sure that the provisions are watertight and enforceable.” – For additional information please contact: Alexandra Dean of Gepp & Sons. The above is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.