Do I have to pay my employees if they can’t get into work? – And other top “Beast From the East” tips

As Britain battles with the worst weather in decades, employment law solicitor, Paman Singh, from Law At Work, advises employers on how to prepare for a cold snap.

The so-called “Beast From the East” has gripped much of the UK in icy temperatures, and while we may have escaped the worst of it, blasts of snow and wind are expected to continue over the next few days. While there is much gleeful talk of possible snow days, the reality is bad weather episodes can be costly for UK businesses if staff are unable to get to work.

To help employers during the current cold snap and prepare for future scenarios, employment law and HR specialists Law At Work have the below advice.

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  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 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.​

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  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 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, which   should clearly lay out your organisation’s position  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.