Maybe not with the current swine flu situation in Mexico. However, the holiday season is fast approaching and with it the headaches that it can throw up for those left holding the fort in HR. So, here are our top tips on dealing with them.
 
1.    Temporary changes to working hours
Employees may request temporary changes to their working hours over the summer period, particularly in order to juggle child care arrangements during the school holidays. If you are able and willing to grant such requests, you should make it clear to the individuals that such changes are temporary and that there is no guarantee that similar requests will be granted in future. It is good practice to document the agreed changes in writing, setting out the temporary nature of the arrangement and also any related consequences, such as a pro rata reduction in pay.
Whilst these changes can lead to a lower salary bill for employers, which may be welcome in the current economic climate, allowing changes carries with it the risk of setting a precedent. It is therefore a good idea to document and tell each employee the specific reasons you are granting their request. This may help you when turning down other requests by enabling you to draw distinctions based on the particular roles and the nature of the requests.
 
2.    Time off for dependants
All employees have a right to take a reasonable amount of time off work in order to deal with unexpected emergencies affecting their dependants. The definition of “dependants” is actually quite wide as it covers not just an employee’s children but also his or her spouse/civil partner, parents, and even someone else living in his or her household (but not lodgers or employees). 
Employees can take time off where it is necessary to provide assistance if their dependants fall ill, give birth or are injured or assaulted or to arrange for the provision of care of them if they are ill or injured. They can also take time off where it is necessary to deal with unexpected breakdown of arrangements for the care of a dependant, such as a nanny or childminder calling in sick. Whilst this ought to cover the nanny being late back from her own holiday due her flight being cancelled, it does not cover employees who simply miss their flights home. Time off for dependants is unpaid and is intended to be for a short time only in order to deal with a particular emergency. It is not intended to take the place of ordinary childcare arrangements and it is entirely separate from the right afforded to employees with children under five to take unpaid parental leave. 
 
3.    Other emergency time off
Other emergencies that may occur in an employee’s personal life, such as a burglary or flood at home, should be dealt with in accordance with any relevant policy or contractual arrangement you have in place or simply by ad hoc arrangements between you and the employee. If you have a particular problem with employees coming back late from holiday you may want to consider a policy on how such absences will be treated.
 
4.    Sickness absence, unauthorised absence and the late returners
You may find levels of sickness in your organisation rise during the holiday period. Some employers report sickness absences rising sharply at the time of key sporting events, such as Wimbledon and the Ashes. Absences during the holiday period should be dealt with in the same way as other times of the year. Non-genuine sickness absence can be treated as a disciplinary matter and you are under no obligation to pay sick pay for such absence. The same applies to other unauthorised absence, such as where people simply come back a day or two late.  You could also consider excluding liability to pay contractual sick pay where sickness is self-inflicted, such as sunburn or heat stroke caused by too much time on the beach over a sunny weekend.
If there is a clear increase in sickness absence rates on Fridays and Mondays or at the beginning and end of pre-booked annual leave, then this can be addressed in part by conducting return to work interviews with those who have been off sick. However, this should be done as means of monitoring absence and discouraging non-genuine sickness absence; it should not be viewed a disciplinary meeting. If it transpires from a return to work interview that the sickness absence is not genuine then you should follow your disciplinary procedure. 
 
5.    Home working (not babysitting)
Some employees may ask you if they can work at home for some of the school holiday period. It is important for employees to realise that working from home is not an alternative to making appropriate child care arrangements. Any working from home should simply be done on the basis that it cuts down on travelling time and/or makes child care arrangements easier. An employee should not be both working for you and caring for their child at the same time.
Obviously this can be difficult to monitor in practice but problems may be avoided by ensuring that an employee’s understanding of how home working will work is the same as your own by laying down clear ground rules about when he will be available and the type of work he will be expected to do.
 
6.  Swine flu
Whilst the recent news agenda has been dominated with details of MP’s expenses, the World Health Organisation still regards the threat posed by swine flu as a serious one and it has the potential to have a huge impact on any businesses whose staff are affected.
Your organisation may have been among the many who produced business continuity plans in the aftermath of 9/11 and the July 2005 bombings in London. If you were, it would be worthwhile revisiting your plan now to see it deals with the issues that could arise if large numbers of staff fall ill. If you were not, now is the time to turn your mind to producing a plan of action and communicating it to staff. You should also consider what scope there is for employees to from home should you want to implement widespread home working to help limit the scope for illness to spread.
You might also want to revisit any travel policies you may have. Do you want to prohibit business travel to any locations or require individuals to notify you if they travel on holiday to certain locations? Will you require employees to remain at home for a period prior to returning to the office if they have visited high-risk locations?  Some employers will also be considering whether they have the discretion not to pay sick pay to employees who take personal trips to high risk locations and then fall ill upon their return.
 
David Murphy is an employment and HR lawyer and an Associate at Fox Williams LLP.  He can be contacted on 020 7614 2633 or dmurphy@foxwilliams.com

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