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Snow and Getting to Work

We have just had the coldest December in Northern Ireland since 1981.

Snow and ice has been a feature of our weather for the last number of weeks and this has led to problems for many workers in trying to get to work because of problems with the roads. This article will look at the employment issues around the current travel problems.

Employees are obliged to attend work unless they are sick or on leave and this means that the onus is on employees to come to work. This will apply even in extreme weather conditions. However employees should not feel pressured to risk their safety to get to work. Employers should therefore consider whether employees could work from home until the weather improves. If working from home is not an option the employer could agree that employees can make up the time at a later date or allow employees to take the time off as paid annual leave. Unless the employee’s contract contains an express right for the employer to direct when their holiday is taken, employers cannot force employees to take a day’s holiday without their consent or without giving proper notice as set out in the Working Time Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1998 (as amended). The regulations allow an employer to give an employee notice to take leave, provided that notice is twice as long as the period of leave. This may not be practical given that it is difficult to tell from one day to the next what the weather will be like.

Employees have no general legal right to be paid if they do not come into work, unless their contract allows for them to be paid when they cannot get into work due to bad weather. Some companies have 'bad weather' policies so that employees who are kept away from work are still paid. For those employers who don't have 'bad weather' policies, the TUC advises that it would be bad practice not to pay staff or force them to take holiday as this would cause resentment among those who have been kept away from work through no fault of their own.

If the employer temporarily decides to close the business at short notice because of the weather and there is no work available for the employees as a result the employer cannot usually withhold pay. If the employer does withhold pay the employees could bring unauthorised deduction from wages claims to recover the pay owed. If however an employer has a ‘temporary lay off’ clause in the contract of employment which allows them to temporarily lay an employee off without pay (other than statutory guarantee pay) or it is custom and practice for an employer to operate on this basis then it may be permissible for an employer to close the business at short notice because work is not available beyond their control.

Employees have the right to unpaid time off to deal with emergency situations regarding their dependents. This time off would not normally apply to this situation as a school closure is not the same as a disruption to childcare. However, it is arguable that a situation where school closures were announced in the morning would be seen as constituting an emergency situation and employees would be entitled to statutory protection for taking a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency situation, i.e. to make alternative arrangements for care of their dependants. This time off is normally unpaid but not all employers would take this approach.

As previously mentioned many employers have ‘bad weather’ policies that state what is expected of staff and what they should do when show, ice and a lack of public transport prevents them from getting to work. This policy should also cover what parents should do if their local schools close and they have no alternative means of childcare.

Further information is available from your local CAB or from the Labour Relations Agency on 028 9032 1442.

Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice

Belfast Telegraph