Legal Q&A: Staff sickness absence could cause World Cup mayhem

Q We are concerned that during the football World Cup many of our employees wanting to watch the football will take a day off as a ‘sickie’. What measures can we take to prepare for this?

A Surveys have suggested that during the last World Cup and the more recent European Championships there was a greater tendency for employees to phone in sick. Whether this was connected to watching the football or being too hung over to get into work the day after is not clear. However, now is the right time to make plans. The football World Cup starts on 9 June and goes right through to 9 July 2006. A policy on absence during this period will need to be communicated to all staff. If you only make different rules for male members of staff, you may face sex discrimination claims.

It is important to remind employees that as the World Cup is not far away, any requests for holiday during the tournament should be made as soon as possible. If applicable, you should make it clear how requests will be granted, eg, in accordance with the normal holiday procedure, or on a first-come, first-served basis.

You should also highlight that levels of attendance will be monitored, and sickness absences will be investigated if they coincide with football matches.

Remind employees that attendance at work while under the influence of alcohol would be a disciplinary matter and that appropriate action may include dismissal.

Q Do we have to pay employees who are off sick during the World Cup?

A This will depend upon whether there is a contractual right to sick pay. If there is a contractual duty to pay then you may be in breach of contract to refuse payment of sick pay.

If there is no contractual sick pay scheme, the employee will only be able to rely upon the statutory sick pay (SSP) scheme. This generally means the employee will not be entitled to SSP during the first three days of the sickness absence. The current rate of statutory sick pay is 70.05 per week. You may dispute that the employee was genuinely off sick.

Q What rights do employees have to take time off?

A While there are rights for an employee to take time off for dependants in an emergency, to take parental leave to care for young children, to serve on a jury or to carry out duties connected with a number of public offices, there is no statutory right to take time off to watch football.
Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, employees have the right to take up to four weeks’ paid holiday. Employees may also be entitled to additional holiday under their contract of employment. Employers and workers can agree how and when to give notice of when leave is to be taken.

In the absence of an agreement, the notice period that a worker must give should be at least twice the period of the leave to be taken. An employer may refuse the worker permission to take leave requested within a period equivalent to the period of the leave. For example, if a worker wants to take a day’s leave, he or she would have to give at least two days’ notice. The employer can come back within one day to refuse the leave. This provides employers with flexibility where, for example, a number of other workers apply to take the same day off.

Q What practical steps could be taken to keep staff motivated and encourage attendance?

A There is no employment policy that will stop football ‘taking over’ during the month of the World Cup. Given that there is likely to be a nationwide football frenzy, many employers are thinking of ways in which the focus on football can be used to improve employee relations.
There are various suggestions as to how this can be done. You could introduce a temporary policy of being flexible about hours. Many of the matches will kick off at 5pm, so allowing staff to leave work an hour earlier will enable them to see the matches. Arrangements could be agreed to make up the time on another day.

Similarly, if there has been an evening match, the policy on flexibility could be used to allow employees to start work an hour later. This may encourage attendance where there has been excessive drinking.

To minimise disruption, many organisations are planning to screen the England matches at the workplace.

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Guy Guinan, employment partner, Halliwell

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