With winter weather just around the corner, the early indications are that this winter is looking set to be particularly severe. Weather forecasters have warned that Britain should prepare for heavy and persistent snow with winter 2013 expected to be the worst in more than 60 years with some of the lowest temperatures on record.

As we have seen in previous years conditions such as these can cause widespread disruptions to roads and public transport preventing many employees from reaching their normal place of employment. The CIPD reported that up to 124 million working hours were lost in the first week of snowfall in 2010 because of adverse weather conditions which affected three-quarters of all employees.

Despite the difficult conditions, 50% of those employees surveyed felt pressurised to get into work. Although 11 per cent of staff who were unable to travel to their workplace were able to work remotely from home, 12 per cent of British workers were unable to work at all. School closures also had an effect forcing some parents to stay at home.

This level and scale of disruption will undoubtedly impact employers and businesses throughout the country due to lost productivity. However, employees are expected to make every reasonable effort to attend for work, but without compromising their health and safety.

The onus is the employee to attend work. Generally there is no legal right entitling you to be paid by your employer if you are unable to attend work because of snow and transportation problems and technically it can be treated as an unauthorised absence.

However, some employers may have contractual, collective or custom and practice arrangements in place relating to pay in such situations so you should also consider whether you would be entitled to be paid in accordance with any of these.

Workplace closures

If the employer closes the office or place of work due to adverse weather, you would generally be entitled to be paid. If your employer makes a deduction from your pay you would have the right to bring a claim for unauthorised deduction of wages and/or breach of contract to recover the sums owed. The exception to this is if you agree otherwise or your employment contract has a clause entitling your employer to lay you off without pay. There are complex rules which apply to such clauses and since you may be entitled to pay at a specified rate you should take legal advice.

What are the alternatives?

You should check to see whether your employer has a policy to cover adverse weather. Where your usual means of transport is out of action you should explore other ways of getting into work. You should not however feel pressurised to risk your safety.

A flexible approach is likely to be the most effective way of dealing with bad weather and travel disruption and you could discuss with your employer the possibility of working from home, the nearest office, being paid but making the time up at a later date or taking the time off as paid annual leave or as unpaid time off to care for dependants.

Your employer cannot force you to take the time off as holiday without your agreement unless your employment contract contains an express right entitling it to do so.

School Closures

Parents have the right to take a reasonable amount of time off where it is necessary to deal with the unexpected disruption, termination or breakdown of arrangements to care for the child. You should check with your employer to see what their approach is, but usually you will not be entitled to be paid for this day. You are however protected from suffering any detriment for taking the time off. You must however tell your employer of the reason for your absence as soon as reasonably practical and how long you expect to be away from work.

Employees who do actually make it into work?

Employees who have battled into work, often against the odds, may resent the fact that others made less effort, especially if, once they are in the office, they have to work extra hard to cover those who are absent. Ideally, the employees’ efforts should not go unnoticed.

Employers should carefully observe health and safety regulations which state that an indoor workplaces such as offices should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing and normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius.

Employers should continue to monitor weather warnings throughout the day and let employees leave when appropriate to avoid any treacherous travel conditions on the way home. Never ask staff to disregard official weather and travel advice.

Helena Woodward-Vukcevic, specialises in general commercial litigation and employment law at law firm Hart Brown