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Travel to work in extreme weather


The recent floods that struck large areas of the UK have caused chaos for householders and businesses. They also mean restricted access to work, which can lead to staff absences or late arrivals, with all the disruption that this can cause for employers.


It’s not just flooding – heavy snow can cause chaos as well on both road and rail as the recent blizzards on the east coast of the United States have shown.


Extreme weather, therefore, is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ and both employers and employees who are faced with this situation should consider both their options and their rights.


Implications


Legally, there is an obligation on the employee to get to work, no matter how bad the weather has become. An employee has no right to be paid if they are unable to get to work, or if they arrive late, unless their travel time is counted as part of their working time or unless the employer provides the transport.


However, if the right to payment is set out in their contract, or it has become custom and practice for them to be paid in such situations, an employer may well have to pay their employees.


If the employer makes payments to staff on a discretionary basis (that is, case by case), it should be borne in mind that after the first such payment, it could be argued that a precedent has been set.


What should employers do?


Employers will usually encourage employees who cannot use their normal means of transport because of extreme weather to try all the alternatives until there is no other safe means of transport available.


The employer should draw up and put in place an “extreme weather” policy so that their approach can be formalised and they can ensure all members of staff are treated consistently.


The policy can deal with the steps employees are required to take to try to get into work on time and how the business will continue if they cannot.


The employer should have a system whereby the employee can contact them if they are not able to get to work. If an employee has to be absent, it is better for all concerned if they can advise their employer as soon as possible.


A business that takes measures to address weather-related staff absence should take care that it does so in a proper and fair way. Not only will this ensure good relations are maintained with employees but in the event of an Employment Tribunal case, it will stand the employer in good stead if they can show that they have dealt even-handedly with members of staff.


What should employees do?


Staff should consider how they plan to get to work. Unless a truly unexpected catastrophe occurs, there is always some warning – albeit not entirely precise – of extreme weather.


If it is at all possible, an alternative route or travel method should be arranged, so that employees can get to work if not on time, then within a reasonable delay. Whilst this may be a practical solution with some types of extreme weather, there may be situations in which it is simply not possible for an alternative to be found.


If an employee sets off in good time and then, due to unforeseen circumstances, finds themselves delayed, it may not be possible to contact their employer to let them know – they may be in slow-moving traffic. Hands-free devices may help in this situation.


If an employee is unable to attend work, they and their employer should consider how easy it will be to cope with their absence. A good employer will be up to date with the employee’s tasks and workload and will be able to reassign important work to a colleague. However, this may not always be the case and employees should consider establishing systems in advance so that they can easily be put into practice.


Home Working


If an employee is stranded at home, the employer may wish to consider the possibility of remote working, provided that there is power and telecommunications available. An employer who has taken the opportunity to put home working arrangements into place (such as laptops, smartphones or VPNs (Virtual Personal Networks)) will be better prepared for situations when staff are absent.


If working from home is not a viable option (perhaps the work is not something that can be carried out from another location), the employer has alternatives – the employees can be advised that if time off is taken in these circumstances, it will be unpaid or paid in discretionary circumstances.


Childcare


If schools are closed due to extreme weather, employees with children may be physically able to get to work but are unable to do so due to unforeseen childcare commitments. Making arrangements well ahead of any extreme weather can allow the employer to plan accordingly because they will know who has the provision in place (and will therefore be able to attend work) and who does not (for a variety of reasons, many of which will be outside the employee’s control). The employer may be able to suggest possibilities that have not been considered by the employee.


If the situation can be classed as an emergency, an employee would be entitled to take unpaid time off work to look after dependants. A lack of childcare arrangements might not necessarily be classed as an emergency; however, if that lack has arisen due to extreme weather conditions, it could be treated as such.


In the eyes of a Tribunal, an employee is allowed as much unpaid time off as is necessary to make alternative arrangements for childcare. This means that the amount of time off will vary depending on the circumstances of the employee.


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