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Wednesday 21 April 2010

Travel disruptions caused by volcanic ash leave employers at a loose end

Best practice in the workplace

Whilst holiday makers are reeling at the cancellations of their spring getaways, employers are experiencing the knock-on effects of the recent flight restrictions imposed by all airlines.

According to latest indications the travel disruptions have already cost London £200m and are continuing to cost the city £50m a day.

Company owners across England have found themselves in the unprecedented circumstances of having to establish ‘best practice’ for dealing with employee absence relating to the aircraft restrictions. The ‘faultless’ nature of the volcanic event means that businesses are finding that establishing a fair ‘absence procedure’ isn’t as clear cut as one might assume.

There has been no case law on how employers should be expected to treat employees and in particular their wages when a ‘force of nature’ causes employees to be stranded abroad.

The consensus in England is that employers are well within their rights to deduct pay from the absent employees. If there is a policy or contractual clause in place then this makes things a little clearer but lack of such a policy is not necessarily a problem. The main reason for this is that employers are only obliged to pay for actual work that is carried out by employees.

Despite that financially the aircraft restrictions appear to favour the employer, companies should think carefully before disciplining an employee for not showing up for work if it can be proved that he/she did not unnecessarily delay their return- disciplinary decisions should be reached with caution. This advice comes as trade unions point out the problems associated with imposing too heavy a penalty for absence such as low staff morale within the workplace.

We offer the following advice for all businesses currently concerned with employee absence procedures relating to aircraft restrictions:

The employee should have made every effort to get in contact with their manager when it became apparent they were not able to attend work due to flight restrictions however employers should be compassionate in terms of people getting in touch, it could be difficult for them to do so if they are stranded somewhere abroad.

You may wish to consider the following options when making decisions over employee absence over the aircraft restrictions:

You may request an employee takes the further days off as holiday; or

Treat it as unpaid leave (time of to deal with an emergency in some cases could be argued- but still unpaid); or

Ask them to make up the time; or

At your discretion, pay them for that period (you would not be obliged to pay them as they are not attending work)

It is vital for employers that you are consistent in your dealings with employees.

If your workers are actually away on business abroad and unable to get home, you will find yourself in a different situation as an employer. You will have a duty of care to make sure they are looked after as they are on company business. They should be paid and given further subsistence allowance wherever necessary. Check with your travel insurers what they can do. Getting your employee to carry out work remotely is of course a possibility and it would be reasonable for you to request that they stay in touch about travel plans.

We hope this advice is useful to you.

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