Petrol shortage leaves HR in a legal minefield

The fuel crisis tested HR departments’ emergency staff plans to their limits and threw up worrying legal problems about laying off people without pay.

As the struggle to get to work receded for staff this week, personnel managers were left with a number of urgent employment questions to address.

It emerged last week that there is a lot of confusion over the legal position when an employee is willing to work but conditions make it impossible to get to work.

Emergency guidance issued by Acas advised that if contracts do not retain a right for employers to lay off employees or put them on to short-time working, then laid off staff should be paid normally.

But the Industrial Society claimed that given the conditions of the crisis, when all petrol supplies were blocked and the ability to provide work was beyond companies’ control, it would have been legal to lay off staff without pay under common law.

Companies could face a raft of unfair dismissal claims from staff if they laid off people when they could provide work – for example, when only a single petrol supplier was blockaded and some goods could be distributed.

Susan Anderson, the CBI’s director of HR policy, said last Friday was the crunch time when things would have started to deteriorate to catastrophic levels and staff would have been laid off.

“People can only be laid off without being paid if it is written in their contract – if it is not written in the contract they would receive full or guaranteed pay,” she said.

Trudy Geraci, personnel manager at Caerphilly-based pastry manufacturer and food distributor Peter’s Food Service, told Personnel Today that 350 factory employees were temporarily laid off during the crisis, but still received full pay by taking concessionary holidays.

Any goods produced by the shift that was laid off could not have been transported. “It has been terrible but we are now in a better position and can bring staff back into work,” she said.

Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust HR director Judith Hardisty said that like other trusts in Wales it put its bad weather emergency policy into action to deal with the crisis.

 By Richard Staines

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