What to do if your employees are stranded abroad?

Sep 25, 2019 | Current Events

The fallout from the collapse of Thomas Cook has been all over the news and social media, with stories of holiday makers being forced to pay substantial sums to hotels to continue their stay and “brides to be” left traumatised at the thought of their wedding abroad being cancelled.  There has also been heart-warming stories of airline staff going above and beyond to continue looking after passengers even though they know they have lost their job.

As an employer, would you know what to do if any of your staff were stranded abroad and couldn’t return to work on time?  The answer is to first check whether you have a travel disruption policy.  Many employers implemented this type of policy after the volcanic ash cloud back in 2010 and after several recent episodes of severe weather.  Such a policy will generally guide managers and employees what to do in the event of travel disruption or adverse weather and most importantly, whether any absence will be paid.

If you don’t have a policy, consider what your action plan is and consider making contact with any stranded employees to communicate this to them.  Many employees will become anxious that they have not been able to return to work through no fault of their own and employers can take steps to put them at ease, and reassure them that they won’t be sacked!

The key question is whether employees have to be paid for this extended absence.  This depends on whether there is an express contractual right to be paid (which is probably unlikely) or an implied term through “custom and practice” that as employees in similar situations have been paid before, the same rule applies this time.  If the travel disruption policy deals with payment, it should be adhered to.

If none of the above apply, the employer can choose whether to make a discretionary payment for all or part of the extended absence as a gesture of goodwill or not pay anything at all.  Those employers who decide to make some payment will be regarded far more positively than the employers who don’t make any payment at all and staff morale will be far higher.

Not every employer will be able to cover these additional costs and so could offer alternatives such as asking the employee to take annual leave to cover the extended absence or using time off in lieu.  If the extended absence is short, it may be possible for the employee to make up the hours at a later date.  In this situation, an employer is unlikely to be able to force an employer to take statutory annual leave due to insufficient notice being given.

Communication is key, whether this is of an existing policy or an impromptu action plan, and will hopefully avoid any fallouts upon the employee’s return.  Although the likelihood of any claims arising out of a situation like this is low, it is always better to set out in a policy how an employer will deal with travel disruption in advance so that employees are already aware of what options they have to cover their unplanned absence and whether they’ll be paid.