Last reviewed 13 October 2022

National Grid have warned that there is a possibility of pre-planned power cuts across the UK this winter, in order to manage diminished fuel supplies due to a number of factors (including the war in Ukraine). This is however, they say, “unlikely”.

In this article, Employment Law Researcher Stacie Cheadle considers what this latest news means for employers and how they might manage their workforce should the worse happen.

The last time the country faced blackouts was in the 1970s, when it was anticipated by one newspaper that “Corner shops, with hand operated tills and candles on the counter, could experience an upsurge in sales.” How many of those such shops now exists is unknown, but presumably that number is less now than it was back then.

Worst case scenario

The National Grid have revealed plans that consist of three-hour power cuts across different regions of the UK, at different times, using a system they have called “rota disconnection”. Under this system, certain businesses are already protected sites that will not be disconnected. Others can apply to have this protected site status, where the result of disconnection could mean physical damage, such as in manufacturing of iron and steel or “significant financial damage”. Important infrastructure such as telecoms sites, hospitals, water treatment plants, railways, airports and armed forces bases will also not be disconnected.

This means that businesses with different sites across the UK or with workers working remotely, could be impacted at different times, and face longer periods of disconnect across the business as a whole. We cannot be sure whether or not this will happen, and it certainly seems a most unlikely scenario. There have been reassurances that avoidance measures are being put in place. Nevertheless businesses should still consider their business continuity plans, just in case.

Business continuity

Should this last resort become necessary, the National Grid have said there could be as little as a days’ notice, so establishing plans now is highly recommended. These plans could cover the following considerations.

  • Diversion of telephones.

  • Back up processes.

  • Full charged mobile phones and laptops.

  • Accessibility of portable charging.

  • Battery powered desk lights and torches.

  • Alternative work locations.

  • Follow up checks after cuts (for example, machinery, fridges and freezers or alarms), and planning for any overtime payments that may be needed for employees undertaking these.

When work cannot continue

There is also the matter of the workforce, and what they can and cannot do during a power cut. For businesses that depend on large scale machinery for their work, such as in manufacturing, it will be impossible to work during a power cut. Unless there is other work that they are able to do or another location to work from (and it is within their contract to ask them to), then there is little point in them being on site. It may also not be safe for them to be, depending on the use of electronic door entries that could cause a fire hazard if automatically locked or the lack of adequate lighting.

Should this happen, employers may consider the options of agreeing annual leave, placing employees on paid leave (however this would require notice twice as long as the leave to be taken, which may not be possible) or relying on existing contractual provisions, such as a lay-off or short time working clause that allows a reduction in pay in circumstances when employers cannot provide work. If a clause of this nature is not already in employees’ contract, it will need to be added with employee’s agreement before placing them on such leave.

Alternatively, it may be possible, with agreement, to vary employees working hours so that the working day falls before or after a planned power cut, or employees may be offered overtime (or the opportunity to make up money lost during lay-off or short time working) to make up for lost time outside of their usual working hours.

What about homeworkers?

Employers should keep in mind that separate arrangements may need to be prepared for homeworking staff, especially if they live in a different location so are, or are not, impacted by a power cut. This can vary from asking these workers to ensure they have batteries fully charged, to asking them to work from another location. They may even be asked to return to the office, although this can only be required where there is an appropriate clause to do so. Alternative options for homeworkers who are not able to attend the office could be annual or other paid leave.

Other consequences of a power cut

Some employers may see a rise in emergency dependants leave, when childcare providers are forced to close and there is insufficient time for the employee to make alternative arrangements. In these circumstances, allowing homeworking, where this is an option, may be preferable.

A final consideration that employers need to add to their plans is the voluntary scheme National Grid have announced, which will offer financial incentives to domestic customers with smart meters to stop using power at certain times. If an employee participates in this, it will make working from home difficult, if not impossible and therefore alternative plans will need to be made. If the individual is a homeworker and chooses to participate in the scheme when no alternative power source is available, it can be argued that they are choosing to make themselves unavailable for work and therefore do not have to be paid for that time.

Next steps

Now is the time to plan and prepare for the possibility of the worst-case scenario becoming a reality. Having these discussions early on and ironing out any problems that are found will help to minimise the impact of power cuts and maximise the businesses’ ability to continue operating during periods of no power.