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The start of 2023 has seen a further wave of industrial action, with both transport and teaching unions announcing strikes which may affect your own workforce’s ability to carry out their jobs as usual. Below we look at how HR can manage and support employees who are impacted by this strike action.

Possible closure of schools and further transport strikes

The National Education Union (NEU) has announced that its members will strike in a dispute over pay. National strikes are planned for 1 February, 15 March and 16 March, in addition to various regional strikes (see here). It remains to be seen how widespread school closures will be in practice, but it is possible that each school could be impacted by strikes for up to four days. It is unclear how much notice parents will be given if their child cannot attend school on a strike day.

Train drivers have announced that they will strike again on 1 and 3 February. Some bus services will also be impacted by strikes.

Assess the likely impact on your staff

Whilst employers have often needed to be flexible when managing absence, for example during the Covid-19 lockdowns, recent “Snow Days” and travel disruption caused by ongoing strikes, further transport strikes and potential school closures increase the likelihood of disruption over the weeks ahead. Now is therefore a good time to take stock, assess how effective your previous approaches have been and think about your strategy moving forward. 

1. Staff who can work from home 

If it is possible for staff to carry out their jobs from home, you may decide that this is the most practical approach during strike days for employees who are otherwise unable to work as normal. You may have already introduced a home and hybrid working policy which could apply in these circumstances.

However, even if an employee can work from home during a transport strike day, can they actually work from home on a school closure day? If an employee has young children at home due to school closures, it may be difficult for them to work from home effectively. In this case they may need temporary flexibility to carry out their work, or a day off work (see below).  

2. Staff who cannot work without temporary flexibility 

If it is not possible for staff to fully carry out their roles from home or in the workplace, either because of travel disruption or childcare responsibilities, you may choose to agree temporary changes that will apply for the duration of any strikes. You could, for example, allow staggered start and finish times or reduced hours to enable employees to drop off and collect their children from alternative care providers. If they are working fewer hours, will you pay them as normal, reduce pay or allow them to make up working hours at a later date?

3. Staff who cannot work at home or at the workplace

If staff cannot work on a strike day, there are various forms of possible leave to consider. Employees can of course request to take paid annual leave. Note that it is also possible for employers to require an employee to take holiday on specific days, but there are contractual and employee relations considerations, so speak with your Make UK adviser if you are contemplating this approach.  

Alternatively, in the event of school closures you may receive requests from staff to take emergency time off for dependents. This statutory right is unpaid, although you may have a more generous policy. Time off for dependents leave is not intended as a long-term solution, but rather to allow an employee to deal with an immediate problem and put other care arrangements in place. 

Another option might be for the employee to take unpaid statutory parental leave - as employees are entitled to take up to four weeks of such leave per child per year - although the limitations on the way the statutory scheme operates mean this may not be appropriate for odd strike days. 

Otherwise you could allow staff to take unpaid leave outside any statutory scheme. Speak with your Make UK adviser if you would like to discuss which options may be most suitable for your business and for further information about different types of leave.

Remember that employees have the right not to be subjected to detrimental treatment for asserting a statutory right such as taking emergency or parental leave. Similarly, if an employee were to be dismissed or subsequently selected for redundancy because they took, or sought to take, such leave, then they would be entitled to make a claim of detrimental treatment or unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal regardless of their length of service.

Deciding and communicating your approach

We recommend that you make clear to staff that you expect them to work as normal wherever possible and the steps they should take if they are unable to do so. Where it is not possible for staff to work as normal, you and your managers will need to be ready to discuss with staff the options available, implications for pay and any notice requirements.  Handling these types of situations carefully will reduce the risk of potential employee claims, whether for detrimental treatment, unfair dismissal, discrimination and/or breach of trust and confidence. 

How we can help

If you are a Make UK subscriber, you can access further information about 'Family rights and flexible working' and home and hybrid working in the HR & Legal Resources  section of our website and/or speak to your usual adviser if you have specific queries about the impact of potential school closures and travel disruption on your staff.  

This article focuses on the knock-on effects of strikes in other organisations. However, if your own employees are threatening or involved in industrial action, our experienced barristers, solicitors and HR consultants can offer strategic and practical employee relations support. We have a wealth of expertise from working with trade unions at a local, regional and national level and can support your organisation across a wide range of trade union related matters.

If you are not a Make UK subscriber, our expert HR and legal advisers can offer guidance on a consultancy basis. For further information, contact us on 0808 168 5874 or [email protected].

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