Public sector strikes Q&A

Employment Law & HR update 11/11/2011

The long-running dispute over changes to public sector pensions looks set to cause disruption across the country again at the end of this month.

As happened in June,, public sector unions aim to co-ordinate their strikes to coincide on a “day of action”, set for Wednesday 30th November.

While it has not yet been finally decided that strikes will actually take place, many unions have already obtained the necessary support from their members in earlier strike ballots and so it is important that businesses make appropriate plans to deal with the disruption.

The strikes only directly impact public sector workers, but private businesses are likely to be affected indirectly, either through contracts they service or because their staff have to take time off for childcare responsibilities.

Here our employment law and HR experts answer some of the questions employers are likely to have.

Who is going on strike?

Several public sector unions have vote for strike action. Importantly, these include the major teachers’ unions, and, for the first time, the head teachers’ union, which makes it very likely there will be widespread school closures unless the strike is called off.

Other services which could be impacted include:

  • Customs at airports and ports
  • Jobcentres and social security offices
  • Colleges and universities

The strike day is planned for Wednesday 30th November.

What is the impact likely to be on my employees?

Overseas business trips may be affected by any strike action by customs officers.

However, the most significant impact is likely to be widespread school closures caused by the teachers’ and head teachers’ strike. Many employees with children will be unable to make alternative arrangements for childcare and may have to ask for time off.

What time off are employees allowed for childcare?

For short-term incidents such as this, there are two main entitlements:

  • Annual Holiday

Annual holiday will be paid holiday from the employee’s annual entitlement, and will be booked through the employers’ normal holiday request procedures

  • Time Off for Dependants

Time Off for Dependants is unpaid leave, designed to allow employees to deal with unplanned events which mean they have to take time off to look after dependants such as children.

Q. I normally ask employees to give four weeks’ notice of holidays, but the strikes are less than two weeks away. Can I refuse holiday requests at this late stage?

A. If your written procedures require a longer notice period for taking holidays than the employee gives, you are within your rights to refuse the holiday request. But it might make sense on this occasion to waive the rule, particularly as the employee might instead take the leave anyway under the Time Off for Dependants provisions.

Q. I thought Time Off for Dependants was to deal with unplanned events. The strike date is known in advance, so surely the Dependants rules don’t apply?

A. Recent case law has made it clear that the Time Off for Dependants provisions can apply to events that are known about in advance, if the employee is unable to make alternative arrangements for childcare.

Every case is different, and of course you can try and identify whether a particular employee’s circumstances justify granting a request. However, this may not be the best use of your time and, since the leave is unpaid, this is usually a sufficient disincentive for its abuse.

Q. What if employees take the time off as sick leave?

A. This may happen if employees are left feeling they have no choice because other types of leave have been denied them.

Where statutory sick pay rules apply, a single days’ sickness absence is likely to be unpaid. If your business operates a more generous scheme, check whether you have policies in place that allow you to require additional evidence of genuine illness in cases of doubt.

Q. How do I prepare?

The best advice is to accept that the strikes will cause genuine difficulties for some employees and disruption to your business, but to minimise this by preparing for the strike days in advance.

Be aware that significant numbers of workers may need time off for childcare and plan accordingly – find out who will be asking for time off

  • Consider giving employees the choice of taking holiday or Time Off for Dependants on the strike days
  • If you need to relax your rules on advance booking of holidays or the number of staff allowed off at one time, make a clear decision on this and communicate to your staff that it is a “one-off”
  • Consider whether temporary flexible working arrangements, such as some home-working, could assist

As always, our employment law and HR consultants are on hand to give further, specific, advice when you need it.


If you would like further information, and already subscribe to RBS Mentor, please call the Advice Service. If you would like more information on how Mentor could help your business in situations like this and many others, contact us today for information.


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