Fifty-two percent of UK employers do not pay their workers when extreme weather conditions prevent them from coming into work, according to a poll by UK employment and health and safety adviser Croner.
With the Met Office predicting that over the next few months Britain will experience its coldest winter for a decade, it looks as though many companies will be forced to make decisions and develop policies in this area.
Howard Hymanson, a partner and head of employment at law firm Tarlo Lyons, explains the legal position: “The obligation on employers to pay only arises when an employee is ‘ready, willing and available for work’. So, if that employee is unable to attend their place of work because of bad weather, then the employer has no obligation to pay them.”
However, he continues: “Since many people now perform aspects of their job from home, employees could argue that they are available for work there.
“It could also be argued that a failure to pay may be sufficient to constitute a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence, particularly where the employer is inconsistent in how it treats absent employees.”
Regardless of the legal requirements, the experts counsel companies to devise, implement and communicate clear bad weather policies. Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, says: “Doing this could help to avoid conflict or confusion should an employee be late or fail to attend work altogether as a result of bad weather.
“In fact, a goodwill gesture of continuing to pay staff who can’t attend work might actually have a positive effect on business productivity and morale in the long term.”
Nita Benson, HR consultant at Tenon, a firm of accountants, says: “Specific groups of employees, in particular those who may be at additional health and safety risk as a result of bad weather, should be identified and policies determined for how such groups will be handled.
“Such policies should allow for a degree of flexibility and discretion as it would be impossible to be too prescriptive.”
Northampton College has found its adverse weather policy useful. The further education college is spread over five sites and has almost 1,000 staff. In January 2005 it included a section on bad weather in its work-life balance policy.
Kate Birch, HR director, says: “It states simply that staff should do their best to anticipate problems and make arrangements for them. Having the policy has been useful simply for the clarity it provides.
“We’ve had to look at each case on an individual basis and weigh up how frequently an employee is absent because of weather, and how much real effort they are making to get to work. We haven’t had any problems though.”
Simply best practice
As Ray Fletcher, HR director at the Transport & General Workers’ Union says, this is less a matter of law and more one of employment best practice: “Good employers will always take account of exceptional circumstances affecting employees and should make appropriate allowances.”
There should be no salary penalty for those who make a genuine effort to get to work in exceptional circumstances, Fletcher says.
“This is simply a matter of acting sensibly and compassionately, bearing in mind that employees who are treated well in these circumstances will be much more motivated and committed to a fair-minded employer than those who are penalised for circumstances beyond their control,” he adds.