HR · 12 December 2017

Seven employer tips for when winter weather causes staff absences

Parts of the country were affected by snow and ice in early December

With much of Britain shrouded in snow and ice, what should company bosses do when their employees can’t get to work due to winter weather?

As the UK prepares for what’s expected to be the coldest winter for five years this month, in some parts of the country schools have already closed and public transport has ground to a halt.

While a thick blanket of snow outside might look festive, for employers the winter weather can bring many challenges. In the worst instances, staff may be unable to get to work, bringing business to an abrupt stop before the end of the year.

But, what is expected of employers when this happens? Employment law expert at solicitors Miller Hendry, Alan Matthew, said the most important thing was for business owners to make staff aware of the procedures in place when winter weather hits.

He added: “In an ideal world, employers should communicate what is expected ahead of any forecasted bad weather, and make sure their employees know the procedures. Of course, that’s not always possible.”

Read more: Five important employment law issues facing business owners in 2018

Bearing this in mind, here are seven important questions for employers and their staff for when winter weather makes getting to work difficult.

(1) Do I have to pay staff if they can’t get into work because of travel disruption?

In principle, there is no obligation for employers to pay staff if they can’t physically get to their place of work. Technically speaking, this counts as an unauthorised absence.

Employers must ensure employment contracts entitle them to make deductions from staff wages in the event of unauthorised absences, otherwise they risk being sued for unlawful deductions.

(2) Can I make staff take absence related to winter weather as paid leave?

In theory you can always ask, but employers should review staff contracts in advance, and clearly communicate your approach to weather-related absences.

Don’t force employees to accept paid leave retrospectively. Instead, consider alterations to contracts, with a concession that permits you the employer to deduct holiday entitlement from employees in such circumstances.

(3) Is there is any obligation to pay employees if a workplace is closed?

Yes. When severe winter weather has made it necessary for an employer’s business to close and employees remain willing and able to attend for work they are, in principle, entitled to be paid.

(4) What if employees are able to get in to work, but need time off to care for dependents?

Employees are entitled to unpaid time off to care for dependents, but this is only to deal with emergencies. If closure was foreseeable, or continues on and on, employees should make alternative childcare arrangements and return to work. If they do not, such absences would then become unauthorised.

(5) Whose responsibility is it to clear the way and keep businesses open?

It’s the responsibility of local councils to ensure they’re ready to clear ice and snow on thousands of miles of local roads, to keep emergency services running smoothly, and to improve conditions so that people can continue to work.

(6) What happens if I clear pavement outside my business and someone slips?

There is no law preventing snow and ice being cleared from pavements, which means business owners are free to clear the pavements outside their premises.

Should an accident occur, and someone walking past slips and falls, the chance an employer will be held responsible is highly unlikely. Employers should use common sense, and not take any action considered likely to harm or distress others.

(7) Should a “bad weather policy” be introduced? 

Ahead of the coldest months of the year, employers should consider introducing a bad weather policy. By having well thought out procedures, that are communicated well between employers and staff, businesses will be able to endure the worst of the winter weather.

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.