Dealing with commuter disruption caused by strikes

Many employees may struggle to get to work during strike action/Photo: Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock

Strike action across the rail networks has made it a struggle to get to work for many this summer. What policies and strategies do employers need in place to deal with the disruption this causes? Aye Limbin Glassey, employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau, explains.

Earlier this month, the RMT union called off the last two days of a planned five-day strike by workers at Southern Rail, who walked out over proposed changes affecting the role of train conductors.

This strike, as with previous ones, left thousands of employees unable to get into the office and led to significant workplace disruption.

Previous industrial action at Southern and high sickness absence has already blighted many workers’ commutes this summer.

For employees, this could lead to concerns about the effect that being unable to get to work may have on their pay, particularly if they are forced to take unpaid leave. There could also be a rise in unauthorised absences and sick leave.

Coping with disruption

In order to deal with the possibility of a spike in absenteeism, employers should develop a strategy to cope with the disruption caused by rail strikes, bad weather and other major incidents.

So how can employers respond to the workplace disruption that industrial action on commuter routes can cause?

If employers are willing to pay staff unable to attend the office during the strike, they need to make sure the business can run as normal.

They could offer alternative working arrangements, such as hot-desking where there is an alternative office they can work from during the strike that is possible for the employee to get to safely, allowing employees to work remotely from home, or allowing them to take last-minute holiday.

All policies with regards to pay and working arrangements should be clearly communicated to all employees so they are aware of what they can do in the event of a major disruption.

When considering whether or not to pay an employee for absences during a strike, if pay is docked the employee must have a clear clause as part of their contract which states this is allowed, or risk the possibility of an “unlawful deduction from wages” claim.

To avoid this situation, the employer must have express permission to deduct pay in the employment contract which has been signed by the employee.

Fair and consistent

Enforcing a blanket policy of no pay for those who cannot attend work due to external disruptions does not help to improve employee relations and morale.

The other thing for employers to consider is, if they approach pay and working arrangements on a case-by-case basis, it must be fair and consistent across the company. There needs to be a balance between understanding why some employees can’t attend a place of work and ensuring business continuity and lost profits.

Of course, if a strike happens to coincide with a spell of warm weather, it is possible that some employees might take the opportunity of being out of sight of their employer to avoid work and enjoy some summer sunshine.

They need to be made aware that such behaviour would have repercussions; it would be treated as an “unauthorised absence” and that the employer could invoke disciplinary proceedings.

In this case, the employer should refer any policies dealing with workplace disruptions to disciplinary procedures outlined in employment contracts or handbooks, and make sure all employees are aware of their responsibility to report for work if it is safe or reasonable to do so.

Overall, any decisions on pay or working arrangements should be detailed in company policies. These should be well publicised to all employees and reviewed consistently. If there is a collective agreement in place, all parties should abide by the terms set out.


About Aye Limbin Glassey

Aye Limbin Glassey is an employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau.
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