UK: Disruption to Work Caused by Volcanic Ash Cloud Preventing Travel in Europe

Last Updated: 30 April 2010
Article by Alan Julyan

With air travel still in turmoil after the recent flight ban occurred during one of the busiest periods of the year for employees to take holiday, employers may have questions over the issues that have arisen.

Can employers stop employee's wages if they do not return to work?

Employees are required to attend work unless there is a valid reason for not attending such as sickness, or maternity. Employers could treat those employees who cannot return to work at the end of an authorised holiday absence as taking an unauthorised period of absence and argue that there is no requirement for them to be paid. However, to make a deduction in the absence of an express agreement in writing with the employee could give rise to a claim on the employees return. In the current circumstances employers may take the view that they should not operate this rule rigidly and that alternative action is taken to address the issue.

For example employers can suggest to affected employees that they will be paid but will be asked to make up the time when they return, or they be given the right to extend their holiday if they have accrued but untaken holiday in the leave year or they can take more time off which will be treated as unpaid leave.

One concern that has been expressed is that if an employer pays the employee then the employee may be barred from bringing a compensation claim under the terms of any travel insurance that they may have taken out. Employers may therefore be best advised to advance the amount to their employees and to then investigate what steps the employee could take to recover a loss of salary due to travel disruption.

Can an employer force employees to extend their holidays if they are unable to return?

In the absence of an express term in the contract of employment or by consent employers cannot require employees to take more holiday.

Can employer refuse to allow employees to change their holiday plans to postpone holiday in the light of the problems?

It is not common for the contract of employment to make provision for such a situation. If an employer has given approval to an employee to take holiday and the employee requests that the time off is cancelled, or changed the employer will be required to exercise the discretion favourably. To refuse to agree in the circumstances could amount to an unreasonable requirement by the employer which could in some cases amount to a breach of contract by the employer.

Can an employer discipline an employee who is unable to return to work?

Given the circumstances employers would not be able to take disciplinary action against their employees in the event they are not able to return. However, in some circumstances employers may take action for example if the employee makes not attempt to contact their employer to keep them updated as to their travel plans.

What steps can an employer expect an employee to make to try and find alternative forms of travel in the light of the chaos?

An employer can expect an employee to take reasonable steps to find an alternative way to return to work. However given the limited and expensive options that appear to be available to individuals to make such travel plans only in extreme cases would an employer would be justified in forcing employees to do so. This is particularly so given that many employees will be stranded with other family members and they can neither be expected to leave them behind or to force their family to travel in difficult circumstances.

Can an employee be forced to work remotely from their holiday destination?

Employees can be asked to deal with work issues remotely if this is practical unless approval has been given for the employee to extend their holiday. Clearly each case will have to be considered on its own merits and it may be difficult to expect employees to do so as access for example access to the internet may be limited in their holiday destination. Employers may suggest to employees that if there is a need for them to be in contact that the cost of them doing so will be reimbursed under the terms of the employer's normal expense policy.

The problem caused by the volcano has given rise to major disruption. Employers should respond sympathetically to the unique difficulties that employees will face in trying to return to work. Plans put in place by employers to cope with major events causing disruption to the business should be reviewed to ensure they are satisfactory.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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