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Public Sector Industrial Action, 28th June 2011

It has been widely reported recently that co-ordinated strike action by public sector workers is looming.

Whilst at first glance, private sector employers may think such action will not affect them, the strikes which will see schools, colleges, universities, courts, ports and jobcentres all grinding to a halt, have the potential to be so disruptive that they are will affect the day-to-day routine of many private sector employees.

Without doubt, the main issue that will be thrown up for employees is lack of childcare as a result of school closures. Though Scottish state schools are already closed for the summer, there is a reasonable expectation that further action may follow after the summer break. Employers should be aware in advance of the various ways in which private sector employees may seek to arrange time off when schools are closed as follows:

Annual Leave
Once strike dates have been finalised, a raft of employees may submit annual leave requests at the same time which, in normal circumstances, an employer would refuse on the basis of business continuity. Such requests may also fall foul of leave request notice periods stipulated in employment contracts given the last-minute nature of industrial action. So how should an employer react to holiday requests? It goes without saying that the circumstances in each case will differ but given the strike action is of equal inconvenience to employees as it is to employers, employers would be well advised to honour as many requests for leave as are possible without the business being materially disrupted and, where possible, relax any strict leave request notice periods.

Time Off for Dependants
Employees are entitled to unlimited but ?Ǩ?reasonable?Ǩ unpaid time off from work to care for dependants in emergency situations. (Incidentally, for the purposes of such time off, dependants need not be children but could also be a husband, wife, partner or parent etc who depends on the employee and may be, for example, without public sector care services which would normally be provided but for strike action). Whilst the threat of impending industrial action is well known, care arrangements for dependents once the strikes commence could still be classed as emergency or unplanned circumstances and so the right to time off would still apply. Employers would be advised, where possible, to approve any such requests for unpaid time off.

Sick Leave
Whilst employers would hope that their employees will approach matters in an honest way, it is likely that some employees will instead opt to feign illness in order to cover their child care responsibilities during the industrial action. Employers who offer enhanced sick pay schemes will be at greatest risk here as employees attempt to avoid eating into their annual leave allowance or losing pay by taking time off as described above. Where an employer suspects any sick leave taken during the strikes is not genuine, they should ensure that back to work interviews are carried out and noted on the employee?ǨѢs record. Employers may also choose to implement formal disciplinary proceedings in appropriate circumstances.

Temporary changes to working patterns
Employers should also consider whether, if possible, it may be beneficial for both the employer and employees if alternative arrangements are simply put in place during strike action, for example, shorter working days, temporary flexi-time or working from home.

If you have any queries in respect of the upcoming strikes and their potential affects on your workforce or if you have another employment law query please contact us.

Last updated: 10.00am, Wednesday 29th June 2011

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