Q&A | Managing lateness and absence during travel disruption

Kate Palmer - HR Advice and Consultancy Director

June 20 2022

This week, rail staff are taking industrial action.

With strikes due to cancel commutes across the UK, your staff may struggle to get to work on time – or even at all.

While it’s your employee’s responsibility to be punctual, you may need to step in to limit disruption, confusion, and absences. To help you navigate a week of travel chaos, we’ve answered your most pressing questions…

What should employers be doing?

First thing’s first, make sure your staff are aware of the disruption this week.

It may seem like major news, but some employees might have missed the updates – which could mean they find themselves stranded at the train station.

So, explain what's going on with a company-wide update. You should encourage staff to seek alternatives, like the bus, car, or cycling.

Remember to advise your workforce to allow themselves plenty of time. With limited train services, there’s likely to be more traffic on the roads – so staff could face delays even if they don’t use the train to commute. You should also remind staff to keep you updated if they are running late.

This means your staff are fully aware of their own responsibility to arrive to work on time.

I’m worried my business won’t run as normal – what can I do?

If you deal with the public, late staff will have an impact on the service you provide. This could mean long delays and not-so-happy customers.

To prevent this, consider tweaking your staff rota (if you have one).

This means being careful about who works shifts on days where strikes are ongoing. If you have staff who can easily walk to work, it makes sense to place these workers on shift on affected days. And if you have staff who rely on the train, see if you can schedule them to work on surrounding days instead.

Remember, if staff are contracted to work on certain days or a specific amount of time each week, be careful not to breach this.

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Can I close my business if I don’t have enough staff?

If you still have lots of staff who can’t get into work, it could be tricky to resume business as normal. In this case, you could decide that it's more cost-efficient to close for the day.

But before you decide to shut the doors, consider if you can allow staff to work from home instead. Otherwise, you'll probably still need to pay staff their normal rate – whether or not they do any work.

However, if you have a specific ‘lay-off’ clause in your contracts, you may be able to pay staff the statutory rate instead of their usual rate.

How can I avoid disruption due to lateness?

Without giving your staff alternatives, they might assume they have no other option but to call in ‘sick’ and avoid work.

Meaning you’re swamped with last-minute absences – which could be a costly drain on your business. So, if you think your staff may be late, you could reduce the impact with:

  • Temporary flexitime – allowing your staff to work their normal hours at different start and finish times. This means they would start earlier or later to avoid disruption, but still get the same amount of work done.
  • Overtime – if your employee is late, see if they can make the time back on another day. This means you won’t need to adjust their pay.
  • Time off in lieu – if your employee is late but has built up overtime hours previously, they could cover lateness using their TOIL bank.
  • Home working – if your employees can do their job remotely, consider allowing them to work from home on the affected strike days.

Whatever you choose, be sure to communicate this clearly. When staff are aware of the options available to them, they’re more likely to work in some capacity – even if their usual shift pattern or location changes.

If none of the above options work for your business, the default route will be unpaid leave.

My employee is really late without warning – what should I do?

In this event, refer to your usual lateness and absence policy.

Do you ask staff to provide updates or notice of their lateness? Do you deduct pay if they are late beyond a certain period?

If staff don’t follow the guidance you’ve shared in your policy, it could be a disciplinary matter.

Make sure you share your policy and highlight any important aspects – such as pay. This means staff will be more likely to keep you up-to-date and plan their commute in advance.

If you do deduct pay based on how late staff arrive, make sure you don’t ‘round up’ their lateness. For example, some policies will state “If you are between 1 and 15 mins late, you will be deducted 15 mins pay”. 

Deducting more than 15 minutes' worth of wages would leave you open to legal risk, as it would be classed as unlawful deduction of wages. Plus, you need to check whether deducting wages would mean your employee’s pay slips below the National Minimum Wage bracket. If so, you'll need to avoid making changes. 

Another thing to consider is employee relations. If your employee usually has a good track record of time-keeping, they may be left with a sour taste if you deduct wages or take disciplinary action.

Not got an absence policy in place?

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My worker can’t get into work at all – what should I do?

Beyond lateness, some staff may struggle to get into work – at all.

In this event, you’re left with a few options to limit the impact of their absence:

  • Ask your employee to work from home during travel disruption.
  • Agree that your employee uses their annual leave.
  • See if your employee can use any time off in lieu they have banked (check that there’s enough to cover all strike days that apply)
  • Require your employee to use annual leave. You can only do this if you provide notice that is twice as long as the leave in question e.g. one day of enforced leave will require two days’ notice.

Otherwise, your employee will need to take unpaid leave if they can’t get into work. To avoid any accusations of unfairness, it’s best to explore all other options first - and make sure this is a last resort.

My employee wants to cancel their leave  – should I accept?

Your worker might have had plans to travel on their time off. Or they might have booked a medical or dental appointment.

If the train strikes mean they can no longer attend, they may want to cancel their leave.

Unless you have a clear business reason to refuse, it’s best to allow your employee to cancel the request and use it at a future time. This might free up opportunity for other staff to use annual leave on affected strike days.

Stay safe and stress-free as disruption hits

Rail strikes threaten to throw your normal working day up the air.

You’re stressed. Your staff are stressed. It’s a recipe for rushed and risky decisions.

But don’t worry – Peninsula advisers are here to keep you safe and stress-free as strikes hit. From cancelling shifts to rolling out flexitime, speak to a consultant about how to best protect your business from disruption.

Claim your free HR advice call today on 0800 028 2420.

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