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Sarah Tootell

Stevens & Bolton


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Legal Insight: Limiting the cost of a national walk-out


The country is bracing itself for the biggest walk-out since the 1926 General Strike.  

This Wednesday, up to three million public sector workers are expected to take industrial action against changes to their pension scheme.
A wide variety of institutions will be directly affected, including schools and colleges, courts and public offices, hospitals, airports and possibly prisons.
Ministers are warning that the strike will have a significant, adverse effect on the economy, estimating that it will cost the country approximately £500m in lost output across both the public and private sectors, although unions have dismissed the claims as “fantasy economics”.
But beyond the obvious economic disruption caused by downing tools, private sector companies may be hit if they share premises or entrances with public sector organisations, a situation that would require their employees to cross picket lines to get to work. 
Other staff may also find it difficult to get in due to disruptions to public transport, while the Government predicts that the biggest single impact on the private sector will be caused by the thousands of school closures, which force parents to take time off work in order to care for their children.
As a result, to try and limit the effect of the 30 November strike on their businesses, private sector employers should take preventative action. Such action includes:
  • Sending a company-wide communication to all employees prior to the strike, confirming that everyone will be expected to attend work as usual and that normal disciplinary procedures will apply to anyone absent without permission. Any requests for annual leave should be made using appropriate procedures. Those taking sick leave on 30 November should report their absence in line with the company’s sickness absence policy and may be required to produce a medical certificate confirming the reason for their absence.
  • Encouraging workers to contact a named individual immediately if they feel threatened or harassed on entering work premises or in carrying out their duties (for example, making collections or deliveries). They should also report the incident to the police. Employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their staff and so should act on any reports. But they also have the right to make employees aware that if they do not have a good reason for failing to cross a picket line, they will not be paid.
  • Considering the viability of allowing employees to work from home where disruption to public transport would otherwise prevent them from attending work. Requests to work from home should be treated consistently and in line with any flexible working policy. If it is not viable for a given individual to work from home, you could require them to take a day’s annual leave, providing you have given them at least two days’ notice.
  • It should be made clear to everyone that private sector staff will not have the same protection against dismissal as striking public sector employees. Any employee who decides to join the strike may, therefore, be dismissed.
Parents should have received sufficient notice of school closures to have put appropriate arrangements in place for the care of their children on 30 November. Where this has not been possible and if working from home is not an option, you could require parents to take annual leave or unpaid leave to care for their children. 
The Government, on the other hand, is encouraging organisations to allow parents to bring their children into work. Downing Street, for example, is organising a crèche for the parents of No 10 staff.
Before agreeing to this, however, it would be necessary to conduct a thorough health and safety risk assessment, discuss the situation with your insurers and make a careful evaluation of the effect on productivity of both the parent and other workers.

Sarah Tootell is an associate at law firm, Stevens & Bolton.

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Sarah Tootell


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