How should employers manage staff affected by rail strikes?

Experts urge businesses to be understanding and accommodating of those who struggle to get to work as the country prepares for major industrial action next week

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Next week, a three-day train strike will cause travel disruption for millions of employees across the country. The strikes, due to take place on 21, 23 and 25 June, will see thousands of rail workers walk out in a dispute over pay and redundancies. A London Underground strike is also planned on 21 June, and disruption is expected on the days between the strikes.

The strikes, which the RMT have described as the “biggest outbreak of industrial action in the UK since 1989”, will involve 40,000 workers, and mean those reliant on trains for their commute are highly likely to be unlikely to make it into work. It will also have a huge impact on road traffic, with some ministers calling on a lift to the London congestion charge on the strike days.

People Management explores how businesses can prepare for the strikes and the legal implications if employees can’t come into work.

What if employees are unable to travel to work?

Lauren Harkin, partner in the employment law team at RWK Goodman, advises employers to try and accommodate all reasonable requests by employees who are making their best efforts to come into work during strikes, including allowing staff to come in late or leave early, and where necessary funding overnight accommodation.

“Don’t unreasonably discipline employees who are genuinely unable to make it to work or who are late. There are no legal requirements about what businesses must do, but thinking outside the box will be a key consideration for critical staff in certain industries,” she says.

Harkin adds that businesses should have a policy for dealing with travel disruptions. “In a policy you can make it clear that employees will not be paid if they are not able to get to work and the steps that employees are required to take when faced with travel disruption. This will also reduce the risk of disputes arising between employers and employees,” says Harkin.

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, urges companies to speak with staff and agree alternative arrangements. “Where this isn’t possible, there is the option of enforcing annual leave – with correct notice – or asking staff to use accrued time off in lieu.”

Things might get trickier if the disruptions last beyond the planned three days, says Price, as getting to work is the responsibility of the employee. But, he stresses the importance of businesses reviewing more long-term working arrangements. “Many businesses will have managed home working arrangements during the pandemic, so this may need to be brought in again in some instances,” he adds.

What are the legal implications if you can’t come into work?

Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons, said while many employers will acknowledge the difficulties the strike will cause employees, it is not uncommon to see employers who may bring disciplinary action against their staff unable to make it into work. But, he cautions, saying such action could be deemed “unreasonable” as it is beyond the control of their employees.

Alexandra Farmer, an employment law adviser at Worknest, also explains that if an employee can’t get into work because of the rail strikes, but the workplace is open and work is available, then they have no right to be paid for the day. She adds: “A refusal to attend work in theory could lead to disciplinary action; however if there is a genuine reason why it is difficult to travel to work, this is an unlikely outcome.”

This was echoed by Laura Kearsley, partner in employment law at Nelsons. “It is generally an employee’s responsibility to get to and from work and so if it is not possible the employer is entitled to regard such absence as unauthorised,” she says.

Could the strike action lead to staff shortages?

Price cautions the strike action may well cause employees mental, physical or financial distress on top of the existing cost of living crisis. If the travel disruptions become long-term, businesses could see an influx of resignations. “Of course no one wants to risk losing good key workers so they should look to be reasonably accommodating when it comes to navigating the strikes,” he says.