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Need emergency time off? What are your rights?

Even the best laid plans go wrong, so what do you do when you have to take leave from work at short notice? Charlotte Flatman, head of learning and development at recruitment and training experts SVC Solutions, explains what rights employees have in an emergency… and what employers should do.

It is part and parcel of everyday life that as much as we prepare, not everything goes according to plan.
Parents thought they had seen the end of home schooling after the Covid pandemic, but some schools were forced to close at short notice when it was found they had been built using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) and were at risk of collapse.


It meant parents had to change their plans at short notice and instead of sending their children off to school, they had to put in a call to their bosses to say they were not able to go into work that day. So where do they stand?


It is quite normal that employees might have to request some emergency time off from work and under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees are permitted to take a reasonable amount of time off from work to deal with an emergency situation. That might be if a dependent falls ill or if they have to put emergency care arrangements in place.


The RAAC situation in schools is another example of where someone might have to request emergency time off. This would count as emergency leave as it is not something an employee would know about in advance. Schools were letting parents know on the Sunday night or Monday morning that children could not come into school that day.


In these cases, the employee must inform their employer as soon as possible or as soon as reasonably practicable. The employee is then allowed to take a reasonable amount of time off.


This is not for an extended period of time, however. The first day would be considered to be emergency leave because the care planned for the children has fallen through, but emergency leave would not continue for the whole week.


If it is a situation which is likely to go on, it moves from emergency leave to some other type of leave, such as paid or unpaid leave, or in the case of a bereavement, compassionate leave.


Alternative arrangements have to be put in place. There is also no statutory right to be paid for emergency leave.


From an employer’s point of view, it is advisable to have a policy in place on how to treat emergency leave and whether it is paid or unpaid. They should also clarify what counts as a dependant.


Employers should also aim to be fair and consistent to their employees. If each request is judged on a case-by-case basis, there is a risk of allowing one employee to take time off but not another, leaving themselves open to claims of unfairness and discrimination.


The best advice is to aim for a respectful balance and to make sure the decision-making process is transparent and clear. Ultimately, communication is key.

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