Employers ‘can withhold pay if weather keeps staff from work’

Ensure employees understand policies on adverse conditions, say experts – and view snow as an opportunity to improve trust and boost flexible working  

The rights and responsibilities of employers and employees in handling ‘snow days’ need to be communicated clearly, legal experts have warned, as heavy snowfall across the UK led to treacherous road conditions and power outages at the start of the working week.

As employees struggled to reach the office across swathes of northern and eastern England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, they were reminded that they were not automatically entitled to be paid if they could not make it to work.

According to guidelines from the employment advice and conciliation service Acas, unless commute or travel time is itself considered to be ‘working time’, staff have no legal claim to being paid for disruption to services.

However, if an organisation is forced to close its premises at short notice because of unforeseen circumstances such as heavy snowfall – and employees are unable to work as a result of the closure – employers are unable to withhold pay from their staff.

While several feet of snow may make for a picturesque scene, 140,000 homes lost power overnight, 50,000 airline passengers were stranded at airports and hundreds of schools have been closed, creating challenges for both employers and employees.

"A bad weather policy is a great idea, so everyone knows what to do in circumstances like this,” Helen Goss, employment law partner at Boyes Turner, told People Management. “If there is no policy, the employer needs to clarify how they will deal with non-attendance because of bad weather, and apply that to everyone fairly.”

Employers should also remember that in the majority of cases, employees cannot be forced to take a day of holiday if they find themselves snowed in. According to government guidelines for travel disruption and work, employers must be able to give sufficient notice before asking staff to take holiday days, and in many instances they are not permitted to dictate when individuals take holiday.

To minimise disruption to the workplace, a flexible approach to working hours, and travelling to and from work, is a better path for employers than sticking to the rule book, Acas points out. A cast-iron approach to coming into the office could risk employees driving in conditions that put them at risk, on roads that are hazardous because of black ice or sleet. Instead, employers should advise them to explore other, safer means of transport, or consider offering the opportunity to work at home.

“[Employers] need to take into account availability of public transport or otherwise to get to work, as well as ensuring employees do not feel pressurised to take risks with travelling in dangerous road conditions,” said Goss. “The time can be made up another time or taken as holiday, and in some circumstances as unpaid leave.”

Handling bad weather and travel disruption can offer an opportunity for employers to lift both morale and productivity, so being open to opportunities such as flexible working and working at home can provide a boost to employee relations, experts said.

Employers could consider alternative working patterns, and build a bank of staff who might be available to cover colleagues at short notice in the event of such situations.

“Employers should have flexible working and trust embedded in their organisations to support staff during times of disruption. It's important to have policies for snow days in place, but a longer-term environment of trust and flexible working in an organisation will really help to minimise disruption when staff are affected by snow or adverse weather,” said Nicola Rowledge, people director at online investment firm Nutmeg.

“It can be difficult for larger organisations that have greater numbers of people to ensure consistent and adaptable approaches, but including a flexible working policy, ensuring people have the equipment and software to facilitate that flexibility, and measures that allow people with children to take emergency leave, for example, are great ways to demonstrate that trust."

While heavy snowfall rarely affects the UK, employers should always have a long-term plan in place for adverse weather, Goss advised.

"A bad weather policy is necessary in today's modern working environment, as while remote working is now very common in certain sectors, not every job can be performed remotely,” she said. “Many employees who work in retail or hospitality or in manufacturing need to be onsite."

Ensuring that employees have a clear understanding of organisational policies on lateness, travel disruption and coming into the office during adverse conditions should help to minimise confusion and disagreements when winter weather strikes, experts agreed.