On 23 September 2019, Thomas Cook went into compulsory liquidation. Around 21,000 worldwide employees were left without jobs (including 9000 UK staff) and 600,000 customers (150,000 from the UK) were left abroad. Stuart Chamberlain, author and senior employment lawyer at Croner-i, outlines some takeaway points employers can learn from the company’s collapse.

A leading travel firm goes into compulsory liquidation. It stops trading with immediate effect. All of its flights are grounded. Thousands of holidaymakers are stranded abroad. The firm’s employees face redundancy and an uncertain future. Fortunately, the Government makes arrangements to bring back the holidaymakers in a large repatriation exercise and those holidaymakers who are under ATOL protection, have travel insurance, or have paid for the package or flight with a credit card are likely to receive refunds. But what if one of your employees is caught up in this situation and fails to return to the workplace at the allocated time? What can you do? After all, unauthorised absence is a disciplinary matter.

If you are an employer of an employee who is unable to return to work because of circumstances beyond their control, the following advice may be helpful.

  1. Ideally, you should have clear rules in place (usually in the staff handbook or in policies) that set out the notification requirements for employees who are likely to be unable to attend work or are likely to be late due to travel disruption. These rules should be flexible — the situation may be fast-changing and certainly beyond the employee’s control.

  2. Do not jump to conclusions — try to ascertain the facts. The employee may not immediately be able to contact you from abroad. When contact is made, you may find that events are outside the employee’s control, so it is advisable to offer some reassurance.

  3. Clarify the position about pay and working hours to the employee — you are not under any legal obligation to pay the employee for this lost time (unless there is a contractual term to do so). You should seek to agree to some alternative working arrangements to cover this and any continuing absence. It is usual in these circumstances to ask the employee to take additional annual leave from their annual entitlement to cover the absence(s). Alternatively, you could ask the employee to make up the time upon return to work.

In this situation, there should not be a need for disciplinary action. You are expected to act reasonably in these circumstances, not in a high-handed manner that might adversely affect staff morale and loyalty. Employers should remember that although this happens rarely, it is likely not to be the first time and such advice can be applied in similar circumstances in the future, such as cancelled flights or a late return from a holiday.

Seek further advice

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Last reviewed 30 September 2019