School closures over teachers' strikes: the issues for employers

On 30 June 2011, thousands of schools across England and Wales will be closed because teachers are taking part in large-scale coordinated strike action by public sector workers. How will the action affect employers, especially those with employees who need to take time off to look after their children? 

The disruption may be exacerbated by the uncertainty as to which schools will be closed. While the unions have gone through the required ballot and notification procedure for striking, it is unclear which schools will have a high enough level of teachers taking action to require them to close and it is up to each school to make its own arrangements. Many schools will close completely, some will require pupils to attend but with a reduced teaching capacity, while some will carry on as usual where the number of walkouts is low. 

Some schools may not know whether or not they will be closed until the day, putting extra pressure on working parents, who may have to look after their children at short notice. Employees should be advised to check with the school, as well as monitoring updates from the relevant local authority and the local and national press. 

Issues for employers on 30 June include:

Holiday entitlement.  An employer may agree with an employee who may be unable to come to work because of childcare commitments to take the day out of his or her normal holiday entitlement. In the absence of any provision in the contract (which might provide for a longer notice period for taking annual leave), a worker wishing to take holiday should give notice to the employer that is equal to twice the number of days' leave that he or she wishes to take. Even if the employee does not meet the employer's notice requirements, it is good practice for it to make an exception in this case to allow the employee to take the time off anyway. 

Time off for dependants.  Depending on the circumstances, an employee may be entitled to be absent from work under the right to time off for dependants. Employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with "emergency" situations involving their dependants, in this case their children. An employee is required to inform his or her employer of the reason for the absence, and how long it is expected to last, as soon as possible. While the right to time off for dependants is designed to deal with "unexpected" disruption and employees should make every effort to make alternative arrangements, employees may be able to rely on the right if they are genuinely unable to get to work (for example, when childcare arrangements fall through at the last minute). In Royal Bank of Scotland plc v Harrison [2009] IRLR 28 EAT, the employee knew in advance that he or she was highly likely to be unable to come to work on a particular day and made genuine efforts to arrange childcare, but was unable to do so. The Employment Appeal Tribunal found that she should not be prevented from exercising the right. 

Flexible working.  Employers should consider whether or not employees can make use of flexible working on 30 June, including giving them the option of: 

Use of temporary agency workers.  Some employers may be able to use temporary agency workers, who can be engaged at very short notice and for a single day, to fill in many of their staffing gaps on 30 June. 

  • Line manager briefing on agency temps This line manager briefing looks at the law and best practice on managing agency temps. It aims to help managers understand their legal obligations when engaging agency temps and the possible employment law risks in such temporary arrangements. It also provides advice on liaising with employment agencies. 
  • Temporary workers policy and procedure Use this model policy and procedure as a management policy/procedure to govern the employment of temporary staff. It should be included in any managers' guidelines or staff handbook. 

Unauthorised absence.  Employers may be faced with desperate working parents who are refused time off and take unauthorised absence anyway. While an employer may take disciplinary action against an employee who takes unauthorised absence without good cause, an employer faced with an incidence of unauthorised absence should look at all the circumstances before taking formal action.