Employee emergencies – what about time off?

Employees have entitlements to various types of statutory leave from work, either paid or unpaid. As well as paid holiday they can have several different types of leave for family reasons, and can take time off for public duties, or in connection with a role in a trade union, or to look for work in the event of redundancy.

But most of these types of statutory leave are known about in advance, or are for a specific purpose, so what about unforeseen circumstances?

Employees who have dependants (children/family members/other individuals who reasonably rely on the employee for assistance) are entitled to reasonable unpaid time off in the event of an unforeseen emergency involving a dependant. But no employee is entitled to any kind of leave on a statutory basis for emergencies that don’t involve a dependant. So how should you deal with the need to take time off at very short or no notice?

Domestic or personal emergencies

This might involve a household emergency such as a flood or gas leak or similar, or perhaps a theft or break-in. You don’t need to have a specific policy for emergencies like this, although some employers do, however you should be fair and reasonable.

As long as your employee makes contact with you promptly, you should allow them to take the necessary time off, and perhaps discuss with them whether it will be paid “special leave”, unpaid leave or allow them to use holiday entitlement rather than losing pay.

Try and be consistent in your approach, although in a small business it’s unlikely this type of situation will come up with any frequency so using your discretion in terms of considering the circumstances and the general record of the employee in question is fine.

Wider emergencies

Occasionally there are “emergency” situations which are not directly relating to the personal circumstances of an individual employee. These situations might include significant travel disruption perhaps relating to public transport strikes or major incidents, severe weather, or even terrorist activity or threats, depending on your location and type of business.

Absence for these reasons doesn’t generally have to be paid, but many employers would consider paying staff where they genuinely had made every attempt to attend work but were not able to do so through no fault of their own. On the other hand if your business has to shut because of an emergency situation, and employees were able to attend work but couldn’t do so because the office was shut, then you do need to pay them.

You may want to consider drafting a policy for use in circumstances where there is severe weather or other external factors affecting a large number of employees’ ability to work. The policy could make clear under what circumstances absence will be paid, and what your expectations are of employees in these circumstances. You might also want to consider a business continuity plan for your organisation, whereby there are procedures which will be followed in the event of a major incident, to enable your business to continue operating

Not an emergency?

Of course one of the problems with these types of leave is that frequently there is no actual evidence of the need for time off, so there may be occasions where an employee’s previous record makes you doubt the veracity of their statements. Similarly, there may be times when the employee’s definition of the kind of emergency which requires absence from work doesn’t match your own…

In either of these circumstances you are obviously not obliged to give paid leave or allow paid holiday to be used, and can certainly raise your doubts with the employee and request more information/proof of the emergency if possible.

If an employee is ringing in absent for something which you do not consider to be a genuine emergency, make your expectations clear, with examples of the kind of situation which you would consider a genuine emergency.

Ultimately either of these scenarios could be a disciplinary issue if you felt it was warranted and appropriate and expectations had been made clear to the employee.


If you need further advice about time off for emergencies, do get in touch.