Coronavirus: Employer’s resource centre — live guidance available here

S’now joke: top tips for employers during adverse weather

BY Paman Singh
Employment Law & HR

The so-called “Beast From the East” is now upon us and much of the UK is gripped in icy temperatures which will continue over the next few days. While there is much gleeful talk of possible snow days, the reality is that bad weather episodes can be costly for UK businesses if staff are unable to get to work. We’ve prepared a Q&A on hot (or should we say freezing?) topics for businesses during the cold snap.

Do I have to pay my employees if they can’t get into work?

In general, no. Employees are legally obliged to come to work provided that they are not on sickness, annual or some other “official” leave. This is the case even during periods of extreme weather. If the workplace is open, employees should make the effort to get to work if they can. While employers should not encourage employees to put themselves at risk, if an employee cannot get in the employer is not generally obliged to pay them. However, employees stranded while out on business are likely to be considered as “at work” so should be paid.  

Employers should check their staff policies and contracts for any indication that staff will be paid in the event of bad weather. Employers should also have regard to previous episodes of adverse weather and ensure that their approach is consistent with how they behaved in the past.

What alternatives are there to docking pay? 

Employers may wish to avoid docking staff wages to prevent low morale amongst staff and, in the case of high-profile businesses, to avoid bad press. Approaches to consider include:

  • Paying all staff, regardless of whether they are able to make it into work;
  • Introducing “snow days”, or time-limited paid leave for days absent due to bad weather;
  • Asking staff to take annual leave (note that an employer cannot force an employee to take a day’s holiday without giving advance notice);
  • Permitting staff to make up the time off on their return;
  • Asking staff to work at an alternative workplace (if available); and
  • Encouraging staff to work from home.

Can employees take time off work because their children’s schools/nurseries are closed?

Yes, employees are entitled to reasonable unpaid time off to look after dependents in an emergency. So, if a school closes at short notice and employees do not have the opportunity to arrange alternative childcare, they are entitled to unpaid time off and should not be disciplined for taking this time off. Again, employers will want to check their policies in case provision is made to pay employees who need to take time off in these situations. 

What can I do if I suspect an employee can make it into work but is choosing not to, blaming bad weather?

In this situation it is open to the employer to discipline the employee. However, employers must have evidence to show that employees are blaming their absenteeism on the weather and must not act on suspicions alone. Thereafter, employers should proceed by following their disciplinary policy.  Employers should also take care in relation to any health and safety implications when encouraging (or even threatening) employees who assert that they are unable to attend work.  If an employee has a genuine and reasonable grounds for fearing for their health and safety if they try and attend work during bad weather, disciplinary action may well constitute a detriment based on health and safety grounds.  

What if I have to close the workplace? 

If an employee’s workplace is closed because of bad weather, employers are generally obliged to pay employees.

What can I do to prepare for bad weather? 

Employers can take a number of steps to minimise the disruption caused by adverse weather. The first is to introduce, or update, an Adverse Weather Policy. LAW clients can find a style policy in the client area of the website.  Ensure that the policy and your organisation’s position is clear well in advance of the arrival of bad weather. The policy should contain information on pay in the event of staff being unable to get into work as well as information for parents and those with dependents on their rights and obligations in the case of school/nursery closures. It should also link to the organisation’s absence or disciplinary policies to deal with the issue of employees falsely blaming absenteeism on bad weather.   

Top tips for employers:

  • Plan ahead by introducing an adverse weather policy;
  • Consider alternatives to docking absent employees’ pay and ensure that your approach is consistent;
  • Keep employees updated on travel disruption and ensure that they have a point of contact;
  • Ensure you have contingency plans for staff cover;
  • Don’t force staff to disregard official weather and travel advice; and
  • Do not keep the workplace open if it is unsafe to do so.
© Copyright of Law At Work 2021 Law At Work is part of Marlowe plc’s employee relations division