Employers prepare for bus strike chaos

Wake Smith Solicitors 09 October 2009

Further disruption is expected across South Yorkshire over the coming month as bus drivers once again threaten to strike over an ongoing pay dispute, potentially costing the Sheffield economy hundreds of thousands of pounds. There will be further disruption to the region's businesses as employees struggle to get to work, either on time or at all.

Mark Serby, partner and head of the Employment team at Wake Smith & Tofields, says employers will quickly need to review and implement their absence management policies and make it clear what happens if and when an employee doesn't come in to work.

The Unite union has said First Group drivers across South Yorkshire will walk out on 12, 19 and 26 October 2009. An additional three-day strike will also be held by drivers in Sheffield from Thursday 15 to Saturday 17 October 2009.

From an employment law point of view, the starting point is always the basic premise that employees are entitled to be paid wages for the work they have done. It therefore stands that if an employee does not attend work to carry out the work he or she is employed to do, then the employer is not obliged to pay the employee.

There are of course exceptions to this. Sickness is an obvious one. But there are also statutory allowances permitting time off to care for dependents in emergencies. In the present scenario, this might extend to taking time off to care for a child who is unable to get to school because of the strike action and no other care can be organised for that child. However, there has been good advance warning of the threat of strikes and it may not be deemed an emergency where forward planning could have relieved the situation.

Employers should also look to their contracts of employment which may deal with situations where an employee is unable to attend work because of circumstances outside of their control. Further, it might be that the Company has in the past exercised discretion and paid employees who have been unable to attend work because of transport issues, or even during the Sheffield floods in 2007. Once discretion has been exercised by an employer it is difficult to go back from that position and care should be taken, even if it was only offered as a goodwill gesture.

It may be that you offer to allow employees to take time off as holiday during any period of strike action, or alternatively authorise a day of unpaid absence. This can be discussed with the employees who are affected in smaller organisations, but care should again be exercised when offering this generally across the workforce. Alternatively, an absence may be authorised on the basis that the time lost is made up over the course of the following week.

An employer might also consider the possibility of home working, which is easier to facilitate for office workers who might be able to work within the Company's systems, albeit remotely. It may again depend on contractual or policy provisions, but if the employee wants to work from home, the employer may be unreasonable in refusing to allow him or her to do so if the employee can deliver work from home.

As with most employment issues, advance consideration and communication is key. By setting out firm policies and practice prior to the anticipated disruption further complications down the line can be avoided. This will present a saving in both time and money when businesses can ill afford to lose out on either.

For more information and advice on the legal issues surrounding work absence please contact the Employment team at Wake Smith on 0114 266 6660 or email [email protected].

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