We have just lived through the hottest day on record in the UK, which saw temperatures rise to over 40 degrees in some areas. As a result, we saw travel disruption (from melting train lines and roads!) and employees concerned about working in the hotter weather. Forecasters are now anticipating more heatwaves to come this summer, which means more problems may be on the horizon. So, what exactly are the legal issues in this situation?

Partner in Employment law at Sherrards Joanne Perry answers some common questions ahead of another heatwave:

Do I have to pay employees who are unable to get into work due to travel difficulties?

Take a look at your employment contracts and Employee Handbook. These might specify whether an employee is entitled to be paid if they are unable to get in due to travel problems. If they are silent, however, then the default position is that the obligation is on the employee to get into work, regardless of any difficulties caused by the weather or otherwise. If they do not attend, they are on unauthorised absence and they are arguably not entitled to be paid.

Be careful, however, if you are going to take this approach. Firstly, there is a potential that the employee can argue that failure to make payment in these circumstances is an unauthorised deduction from wages (assuming this is not covered in the employment contract). The defence to this would be that there was no entitlement to pay as no work was done, but it may be an argument you would prefer to avoid. Secondly, you should assess whether the financial benefit of withholding pay is outweighed by the impact on staff morale and productivity. This is particularly so if the weather and travel conditions are extreme and, even with the best of intentions and efforts, employees are unable to get in.

Above all, you should ensure that your approach is consistent. Ideally, tell staff in advance (in written format, e.g. memo or email) what your approach is going to be or, even better, have an “Extreme Weather Policy”.

Consider whether employees are able to work from home, whether alternative travel arrangements can be made or whether there are other ways around the issues – e.g. travelling outside of peak times to avoid the worst of the heat. Otherwise, clearly explain to employees that either: (a) any time off will be unpaid; (b) time off will be paid but that they are expected to make up the time later; or (c) they can request the time off as paid annual leave or unpaid time off for dependant’s leave (see below). Prior notification is particularly important if you have made payments in the past in such circumstances.

As an aside, be careful if you are trying to insist on employees taking annual holiday retrospectively. Employees will need to agree to this unless the contract specifically allows for you to do this.

 

I have an employee who says they cannot come in because their child’s school has closed due to the heat. What shall I do?

Employees with responsibility for a dependant are entitled to emergency time off in circumstances in which there is an unexpected disruption to childcare. Unless the school closure was announced a reasonable time in advance, such that the employee had sufficient time to arrange alternative childcare, this would probably be an emergency situation and employees are entitled to take time off and not suffer any detriment for doing so.

Strictly speaking, the time off is unpaid (unless the contract of employment says otherwise) but employers may again want to consider the impact on morale that this approach would have. Again, it is important to be consistent in your approach. You should be especially careful where other employees who are unable to make it into the office due to travel are being paid.

 

One of my employees failed to come into work today, blaming the heatwave and travel issues. I think he is using it as an excuse and could have easily come in. Where do I stand?

If you believe that an employee is falsely using the weather conditions as an excuse for absence or lateness, this can be treated as a disciplinary matter. If you consider the matter to be serious enough (e.g. if it is a persistent or blatant case), you should investigate in line with your disciplinary policy and take action as appropriate.

However, in less serious or one-off cases, you may be better placed simply having a quiet word with the employee and letting them know that any further time off will have to be taken as holiday or will be unpaid. Bear in mind that it can often be difficult to prove or disprove an employee’s ability to come into work in these circumstances.

 

Our air conditioning isn’t great. Is there a maximum temperature above which I am obliged to shut the workplace?

In short, no, there is technically no maximum temperature above which people aren’t allowed to work. In offices or similar environments, the temperature should be “reasonable”. You should have thermometers around the workplace so that you can check the temperature – although temperature itself is not the sole issue, since humidity, radiant heat sources and clothing are also factors.

The TUC has lobbied for an upper limit on workplace temperature to be introduced – suggesting that employers be forced to take steps when the temperature inside hits 24˚C. Under the TUC’s proposals, staff could be sent home and employers prosecuted if temperatures reach 30˚C (or 27˚C for those whose work is physically demanding).  However, these proposals are currently not reflective of the law.

If your working environment is getting too hot to be considered “reasonable” then you could be putting your staff’s health and safety at risk. If, having taken steps to try to control those risks, the temperature is becoming dangerous enough to endanger health (e.g. through heatstroke etc) then you would be best advised to shut the workplace.

 

The above provides a general guide to issues that might arise. However, each situation is unique and different considerations may apply in your case. We would therefore recommend that you consult a solicitor, or another suitably qualified person, about your specific circumstances.

To find out more about employers responsibilities during a heatwave, click here to speak Employment Partner Jo Perry.