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What to do if employees can’t get to work due to transport strikes or flight cancellations

With strikes and cancellations affecting trains and planes across the UK and Europe this summer, employers need to be prepared in case an employee can’t travel to work or gets stuck overseas.

While the disruption is frustrating enough for holidaymakers, the knock-on effect on employers is also causing strain – from rescheduling annual leave to having to operate with absent employees.

If your business hasn’t experienced this type of scenario before, you might be unsure about your company policy regarding these situations. So, what are your options if staff can’t get to work?

This blog explains what you should know from the perspective of employment law.

Commuters affected by bus and rail strikes

As most people in the UK will know, rail workers participating in industrial action have reduced train services to just 1/5 of their normal capacity in recent weeks.

In some places, there are no trains running at all – and people might not even be able to turn to bus services, as bus companies are also going on strike this summer.

The ongoing strikes are a result of unions attempting to resolve disputes over inadequate pay and working conditions, with employees wanting more job security in the face of soaring inflation.

It’s not just limited to the UK, though – both British and international European airlines have also seen strikes affect their flights, while lengthy queues and delays have also been holding things up at the Dover port and the Eurotunnel as a result of staff shortages and post-Brexit regulations.

As inconvenient as they are, there’s usually enough notice given of an impending strike for people to make alternative plans. If you’re lucky enough to operate a hybrid working model, with employees able to work from home on some days and work in person on others, then it might be as simple as allowing affected employees to work from home on strike days (with advance notice).

If working in person is a requirement and it’s not possible for an affected employee to work from home, you can expect their journey to work to be longer and/or costlier than usual. If you don’t want to deal with lateness or absences from this, you may have to take further steps like rearranging shifts or finding out if employees working the same hours might be able to carpool, for example.

Holidaymakers stranded by flight cancellations

Flight disruptions have also been dominating the headlines for the last few months, as under-staffed and over-booked airlines struggle to recover from the pandemic. The aviation industry was one of the worst hit when COVID-19 shut everything down, and now that demand for international travel is returning, airlines are finding that they don’t have the staff to service all of the flights they’ve sold.

This has resulted in chaos involving dramatically long delays, a rise in lost luggage, and consistently last-minute cuts and cancellations. Many holidaymakers have spoken to publications about their struggles with sudden flight cancellations leaving them stranded abroad, missing work and school.

This is obviously trickier than an employee being unable to catch a bus or train, as there are other options in such a scenario. When it comes to an employee being stuck in another country until they can catch another flight home, it can be much harder for an employer to manage the situation.

What can employers do if workers are stranded abroad?

The first option is to ask the employee if they want to take the extra day (or days) out of their annual leave. This allows them to extend their holiday and still receive pay, even if you were expecting them back on the previously agreed date. It’s not ideal, and it depends on the employee having leftover annual leave
allowance, but it’s the easiest route.

If taking more annual leave isn’t possible, they might ask to take unpaid leave instead. They can then get on with making alternative arrangements to get home without having to worry so much about being absent from work. Employees don’t actually have a legal right to unpaid leave, so granting such a request is at the employer’s discretion.

On the off-chance that the employee’s job can be done remotely, and they have the equipment they need with them there, then the employee might prefer to work from wherever they are. However, most people don’t take their work laptop on holiday with them, and clocking in from a hotel room is probably the last thing on their mind when they’re busy stressing over booking another flight home.

Before you take any action, be sure to check your company’s policy thoroughly for any provisions relating to emergency situations – does your business allow time off in lieu, or does the employee’s contract allow flexible working so they can make up the lost hours later?

It’s best for employers to act as sympathetically as possible, as disciplinary action for out-of-control circumstances could turn working relationships sour – and an unfair dismissal could see your business facing an Employment Tribunal

Employer obligations to staff with transport challenges

While a good employer always does their best to work with employees to resolve issues like this, some things come down to the employee’s contract and the overall company policy. For example, if flights get cancelled and a staff member wants to cancel and rearrange their annual leave, you don’t necessarily have to allow it. Similarly, you won’t technically be obligated to allow unpaid leave.

Of course, there are some exceptions where you would be obligated to pay the employee as normal. If they were travelling on a business trip on your company’s behalf when they got stuck abroad, it would be unfair to expect them to use annual leave or take unpaid leave. On the other hand, it’s likely they’ll have their work equipment with them, and be able to work remotely for the time being.

You can find the UK government’s guide to holiday entitlement here, explaining the legal obligations of employers and the rights of employees regarding time off work.

If you need any help with managing payroll, including holiday pay, or if you’d like to upgrade your cloud accounting services
to facilitate remote working, be sure to contact GBAC, accountants in Barnsley.