How should employers respond when staff cannot attend work due to travel or weather disruption?

Weather forecasters have issued various weather warnings. Unfortunately, some employees (and employers) are also blighted with train strikes across the network, making journeys more lengthy or impossible for some.  In addition heavy snow and ice may cause road closures and travel delays; or simply make travel to work unsafe.  In short, employers should decide in advance how to manage employees impacted by travel or weather disruption.

Should employers insist employees still attempt to travel to work?

Employers should have regard to the health and safety concerns of employees during periods of adverse weather and should act reasonably to preserve trust and confidence in the employment relationship.  Employers have a duty of care to consider the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers. Workers should not be put at an unacceptable level of risk by being encouraged to attend, or attempt to attend their place of work where it is unsafe to do so.  Where it is known in advance that employees will be unable to get to work, or that their journey is likely to be unsafe (and employees can provide evidence of this, or this information is already commonly known e.g. through Met Office weather alerts) employers should not put pressure on staff to attend the workplace.  Employers should plan ahead and communicate with staff in advance to minimise difficulties and make clear expectations. Employers may be able to determine in advance which workers are ‘essential workers’ if they need to operate the business on reduced staffing. 

Clearly, if an employee who has the same journey is able to get to work but their colleague says they cannot or could not, this may suggest the colleague is using the weather, or other relevant circumstance, as an excuse not to attend work (employees be warned regarding their social media postings of sledging and snowmen building)!  Subject to an investigation, the employer may decide to treat this failure to attend work as an unauthorised absence and take appropriate disciplinary action where the evidence supports this.  Legal advice should be sought in the first instance.

Where schools are closed and employees are unable to attend work due to lack of childcare, or where caring arrangements for a disabled relative or dependant are cancelled, employees have a statutory right to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off in this emergency situation. 

Should employees who cannot get to work be paid?

Where the workplace remains open but employees are unable to get to work, or it is unreasonable or unsafe to expect them to do so, the prevailing view is that, although this is a circumstance beyond the employees’ control, employees are not entitled to be paid for the unworked days (or hours, where employees are hourly paid), unless the employee’s contract states otherwise, or, for example, the employer has a bad weather policy that provides for pay in this circumstance. However, employers may consider asking employees to work from home or from another location where this is practicable, or where there is a relevant mobility clause in the employee’s contract which includes the alternative work place.  Many employees may be more productive if they are permitted to work from home, particularly if they live far away, rather than spending hours struggling in to their workplace.  Alternatively, employers may decide to permit employees to take the absence as paid annual leave rather than unpaid leave, or require them to make up the lost days/hours of work at a later date within an agreed time period.

What about where the workplace is closed due to severe adverse weather?

Where the weather impacts the business to the extent a decision is made to close the workplace and there is no option (or it is impracticable) to request employees to work from home or an alternative workplace, employees are still entitled to receive their normal wages. Employers should explain how they will communicate with staff during any closure, for example, through its website.

Regardless of the approach taken, employers should act reasonably to maintain good employee relations and trust and confidence.  Fortunately, as contingency plans can mostly be put in place and temporary issues preventing staff from getting to work are usually resolved on a common sense basis, there hasn’t been any reported caselaw relevant to this issue and, in conclusion, this shouldn’t be too tricky an issue for employers to navigate.