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Charlie Duff

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Editor, HRzone.co.uk

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Coping with the ash cloud: a guide for HR

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Extreme weather is an issue HR must learn to cope with. With recommendations flying in from all angles, we’ve gathered the top advice to make one digestible guide.

With the Icelandic ash cloud making reappearances over the past few weeks, and historic data reminding us that last time the volcano erupted it poured out ash for a full 15 months, there’s a need to make sure your emergency absence or extreme weather policy is up to date.

Do you need to pay stranded workers?
Nick Ralph, partner at specialist employment city law firm Archon Solicitors LLP, explained there is an accepted legal principle that an employer is not liable to pay an employee who does not work. Thus, even though the employee will say that it is not his/her fault, an employer would generally be within its rights to dock pay for any days that an employee does not work because of an enforced extension to their holiday.

However, he explains employees have rights too on this issue:

In practice, employers may not want to face the employee relations backlash of docking pay for employees who have basically just had bad luck.

Employers may agree that the extra time away is treated as part of the employees’ paid annual holiday entitlement – however, as Alan Julyan, Senior Partner and Head of Employment, Speechly Bircham, added, in the absence of an express term in the contract of employment or by consent employers cannot require employees to take more holidays – they have to agree to it.

Employees may also ask, “Will you pay my expenses for the taxi to get me home from here?” Strictly, this would not normally be considered to be a business expense under most employers’ expenses policies. However, some employers may be willing to bend the rules a bit to assist employees if it is particularly urgent for the employee to be back at work promptly.

In theory, an employee who made no effort to try to get home by alternative means to the direct flight might be subject to disciplinary action. But an employer contemplating this would be well advised to make sure that the employee understood that he/she could face this consequence by failing to make the effort.

Anne Pritam, partner at Stephenson Harwood’s employment team, agreed, and added: "If an employee is overseas on business rather than for personal reasons it would be unreasonable not to pay the employee or to require the employee to take holiday for the period of absence. In these circumstances the employee should therefore be paid as usual and the employer should bear the cost of any additional travel arrangements in the usual way."

What might we need to consider in a policy formulated to deal with this type of situation?
You may wish to add a clause which can require employees to take extra holiday: however, this may cause more harm than good as employees with little holiday left may find themselves unable or unwilling to do this. A better stance would be to make it flexible: you are able to make it clear that employees can either take extra holiday or unpaid leave unless they are genuinely able to work remotely.

Employees should of course be required to contact you, or their line manager, in the event of this happening to them to avoid unexplained absence, even if abroad.

There are other options available too: you may instead, for example, offer employees two working days to get home, after which they will have to take unpaid leave or some other such deal to encourage them to get back as quickly as possible: however many smaller organisations will not be in the position to provide such a thing.

The Forum of Private Business member Chris Sinclair, a Director of the computer software firm 3Si Ltd, which is based in Newcastle Under Lyme in Staffordshire, had an employee stuck in the US during the first spate of ash. Chris contacted the Forum for advice.

“She is stuck out there with her family. We’ve now spoken to her – it’s going to be a fortnight before she gets back and she’s already been on holiday for two weeks,” he said later. “But she has the ability to connect to the internet, log into the office and work from home – only for half a day because of the time difference. What she does for the rest of the day is entirely up to her.

“It’s really important to be flexible. Our employee doesn’t want to lose more holidays or pay and we’ve been able to lessen any impact by using the technology at our disposal to set up a transient office – it’s a win-win situation.”

What about remote working?
Employees may be saying, “I am happy to work here on the beach, I have my laptop and mobile phone”. Where employees are “ready, willing and able” to work, it is more of a moot point as to whether pay can be docked, explained Nick Ralph. As Chris Sinclair, above, did, you may want to be flexible with staff who are willing and able to log on and work, as it will save a number of problems such as arranging cover.

Being sympathetic and flexible with your employees, while at the same time being firm and reasonable on what support you can provide as a business should leave you with employees who understand the policy and can therefore comply with it. Plus, the business should feel secure that extreme weather will cause as little disruption as possible.

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Charlie Duff

Editor, HRzone.co.uk

Read more from Charlie Duff
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