With train strikes scheduled for next week, and flight cancellations now a regular occurrence, UK workers seem set for a summer of travel disruption. This blog explores the implication for employers, particularly where workers may be stuck abroad, or otherwise unable to get to their place of work.

Flight cancellations

After two years of restricted travel due to the pandemic, summer 2022 finally provides an opportunity for well overdue holidays, yet with scores of flights being cancelled daily, not everyone will get away as planned, or return when they are meant to. Notwithstanding an argument that flight cancellations or being stuck abroad is not an exceptional circumstance in present times, workers will inevitably feel like it is something outside of their control, and employers are generally advised to act pragmatically.

For those stranded abroad after a cancelled flight home, getting back to work may prove problematic (unless they have booked extra annual leave as a contingency). Those who are able to work, albeit abroad due to a cancelled flight, should be paid in the normal way – working remotely is commonplace in a post-pandemic world, and provides a practical short-term solution where the circumstances permit. However, this approach assumes that a worker has the means to continue working. Although some diligent or senior employees may have taken their work phone and laptop with them so that they can work even if they are out of the country, requiring or expecting all workers (to the extent that the option is available) to do so is not particularly conducive or consistent with the idea that annual leave is a period of rest and relaxation. 

Unless a contract or policy states otherwise (which is unlikely), workers stuck abroad who cannot work remotely, or have no means to do so, have no entitlement to be paid for their absence once their annual leave comes to an end. However, assuming employees are making all reasonable efforts to get back to the UK as soon as they can, and being empathetic to the anxiety and administrative burden that workers will be facing in making alternative arrangements, employers could consider treating it in the same way as they would an ‘emergency’ situation, so if this is paid for a set number of days in other circumstances, to do so here too. Alternative possibilities are to require the days to be taken as paid annual leave, or otherwise as authorised unpaid absence. Options should be discussed in conjunction with the affected employee to find a mutually convenient solution depending on their specific circumstances, although employers also need to be mindful of treating workers consistently.

For other workers, getting away at all may be scuppered where outward flights are cancelled. Although some workers will continue to take their annual leave anyway, others may prefer to get back to work and take their leave at another time having rearranged their holiday. Employers should check contractual and policy provisions around cancelling or changing holiday dates, but otherwise should note that in the absence of an express right to cancel, an employer does not have to agree, and that under statutory rules (which can be varied/excluded with consent) any request for leave should be given with twice as much notice as the length of the absence (which may be relevant where dates are being pushed back a few days or a week). While this gives employers the option to take a strict approach, employers are again advised to be flexible and pragmatic where possible given the circumstances. Of course, last minute cancellations or changes may not always be practicable, particularly for roles where temporary cover has already been arranged or the leave is part of a workplace shutdown. However, where the needs of the business are not significantly inconvenienced, employers will benefit from improved employee relations by cooperating.

Domestic travel disruption

Travel disruption is not confined to flights abroad, with national rail strikes also on the cards. Unlike many of the flight cancellations, plenty of notice has been given of the dates and routes affected and so although inconvenient, there is more opportunity to make contingency plans. 

Workers who can work from home will inevitably do so if their usual train journey is severely impacted and there is no convenient alternative. Yet for those required in a workplace, the disruption will need more careful management. Sufficient notice of the well-advertised strikes means workers have had the opportunity to explore alternative modes of transport, although they should be encouraged to raise concerns with their employer where this would mean a significantly longer or more expensive journey than usual, so that options can be explored. Employers will benefit from working collaboratively with affected staff to find a workable solution, perhaps rearranging working patterns or offering some financial assistance, to mitigate the disruption and to avoid the risk of last minute absences on strike days.