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Emergency leave: what are your responsibilities as an employer?

Emergency leave: what are your responsibilities as an employer?

Let’s face it, emergencies are a part of life. They happen to all of us at some point or another.

Unexpected situations can arise at any time and it is important that employers, in particular HR professionals, are well equipped to manage an employee taking ‘emergency leave’.

The key to classifying emergency leave lies in whether or not a dependant is involved.

One of your team members may get a call and need to rush their child to the hospital. Or, their spouse has gone into labour. Maybe their elderly mother has fallen down and requires urgent treatment. In these instances, given that someone who is dependent on the employee is involved in the emergency, an Emergency Leave request would be the appropriate course of action to cover the time off.

However, it’s important for the smooth running of your business that you understand the intricacies of Emergency Leave as there is no one size fits all approach. 

While there is no legislative framework to guide the implementation of emergency leave, much of the particulars are left to the employer’s discretion. That on its own is a good reason you should have a clear company position on this particular type of leave.

I’ve helped many small business owners in making their own emergency annual leave policies so that their team members can attend to important things happening in their lives, in a way that causes minimal disruption to their business operations. 

So, let’s see how you can apply best practice examples to your unique company context. 

What is emergency leave?

Emergency leave is a legal provision under the Employment Rights Act 1996. It allows employees to take time off work to deal with unforeseen circumstances involving a dependant, which can be defined as a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or in fact anyone who depends on the employee for care.

It is intended to cover emergency situations only, catering to sudden and unexpected time off involving a dependant, not pre-arranged reasons for needing time off work.

While there is no legal timeframe designated for emergency leave, the time taken by a team member must be deemed reasonable in relation to the emergency situation they are undergoing. 

UK Employment Legislation also does not set any limits as to how many times emergency leave can be taken by an employee, however again it is at the discretion of the employer to manage, especially if absenteeism is deemed to be consistently and negatively impacting the employee’s work.

Types of emergencies eligible for leave

In terms of eligibility for leave, an emergency does not necessarily have to be life-threatening.

Common situations that qualify for emergency leave include:

  • Sudden illness of a dependant – mental or physical
  • Injury or assault involving a dependant
  • Breakdown of childcare arrangements
  • Having a baby or to be with a partner who is giving birth
  • Death or funeral arrangements of a dependant (however these may be covered by your compassionate leave policy)
  • Incidents involving a child at school
Types of emergency leave

What doesn’t count as an emergency?

Situations generally not considered emergencies and therefore do not qualify for emergency leave are:

  • Pre-scheduled medical appointments
  • General situations involving non-dependants
  • Emergencies not involving a dependant
  • Planned medical procedures

It is important to be clear that emergency leave must involve both a dependant and an unforeseen emergency.

One of the most common mistakes made by both employers and employees is confusing taking time off to care for dependants with emergency leave. 

When an employee does not qualify for emergency leave, there are other types of leave that can cover the time off work such as sick leave, compassionate leave, unpaid leave, parental leave and maternity leave.

These types of leave might be appropriate in circumstances when an employee has an emergency but the person they need to help is not a dependant, or if the employee needs to give assistance to a dependant but it is not an emergency situation. 

There is also the possibility of an employee dipping into their holiday entitlement instead, or using bereavement leave if a family member suddenly passes away.

Here at Charlie, employees have four personal days per year which can be used to look after dependants who require support. Outside of those days, team members can use days from their holiday allowance for any other emergencies. This way, the employee may still receive paid benefits, especially if the employer’s emergency leave policy does not include the provision for being paid for time off in that instance.

Rights and responsibilities in case of emergency leave

Let's have a look at the various areas of responsibility when it comes to emergency leave.

Employees' rights in case of an emergency

In the event of an emergency, employees have rights that are outlined in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Employees do not have a legislative right to time off for general emergencies, however unpaid time off for dependants is a statutory right available to all employees, from the first day of their employment.

This entitlement does not cover pre-scheduled appointments, nor situations which arise after the emergency, such as looking after a sick child. Employment legislation also states that employees have a right to take a reasonable amount of time off for dependants in unforeseen circumstances, however, it does not indicate what is classed as reasonable.

An employee should notify their employer immediately (where possible) of their need for Emergency Leave.

Employers' rights and duties

Employers must follow emergency leave legislation and ensure that their company policy complies with what is outlined as fair by the UK Government, or they can potentially face unfair dismissal claims at an Employment Tribunal

For example, an employer cannot request written proof of the emergency situation. They must also not treat the employee unfairly or differently for needing emergency time off, nor threaten to fire them, make them redundant based on the time off needed for the emergency, or refuse the employee any reasonable amount of time off.

An employee whose request has been declined and fits the criteria for emergency leave may be eligible to make a claim at an employment tribunal if it is believed the employee has been treated unlawfully as it relates to their emergency leave.

What is worth noting, is that an employer is not required by law to pay for the emergency leave time off, however, it is always wise to check the employee’s contract before making any final determination. There is no legal obligation on employers to pay emergency leave, unless the employee contract at your organisation says otherwise. 

As such, it is important that employers have a clear company policy on emergency leave, and it should be included in any contract of employment. The policy should outline if employees are to be paid for this particular type of leave and detail what is considered by the company as ‘reasonable’ for classifying emergency situations, remuneration (where applicable), and the amount of time off under emergency leave.

Because of the ambiguous nature of emergency leave, open and clear communication is a must, as well as efficient record-keeping to avoid any misunderstandings and to manage these kinds of leave requests.

Get your emergency annual leave policy template

Your small team is like a well-oiled machine, and everyone's role is crucial. But life happens, and when it does, you need a plan. An emergency annual leave policy spells out how to ask for emergency leave, get it approved and keep the workflow from turning into chaos.

Think of it as more than just a rulebook; it's a way to show your team you've got their backs.

Check out our simple but effective emergency annual leave policy template below; all you need to do is adapt it to your own context and needs.

Emergency annual leave policy template

You will occasionally be able to take short-term emergency leave, for personal reasons such as:

  • If your child is involved in a serious incident at school
  • If your childcare or other arrangements break down, eg if your child’s nursery or school is closed suddenly
  • An urgent domestic crisis, such as a burglary or flood

You need to notify your manager as soon as is reasonably practicable if you need to take emergency leave, and if possible, when you are likely to return to work. If you take emergency leave of half a day or more, this will be deducted from your annual leave entitlement. If you take emergency leave of less than half a day, you should make up the lost time during the next couple of weeks.

Frequently asked questions on emergency leave

Do you get paid for emergency leave?

Generally, emergency leave is unpaid unless you offer it in your employee leave policy. For example, at Charlie we offer up to four, fully paid ‘personal days’ per year for emergency leave that involves looking after a dependant.

How many times can an employee take emergency leave?

UK employment law does not have a set limit on the number of times an employee can take emergency leave. However, the leave must be “reasonable”, and using it excessively could be grounds for you taking disciplinary action up to termination.

How does an employee request emergency leave?

The process of filing for emergency leave depends on your company. Generally, the employee should notify you as soon as possible, and they may need to file an emergency leave request form. The Charlie platform lets you do this in just a few clicks.

It's easy to request emergency leave in CharlieHR

Managing emergency leave in your business

Given the inherent nature of emergencies, it is common practice for an employee to advise their employer verbally of their need to take emergency leave. In most emergency situations, a written request is simply not appropriate therefore these kinds of ‘exceptions to the rule’ must be taken into consideration when managing any leave requests, especially emergency leave. 

The Charlie time off feature takes all of this hard work out of managing and tracking HR tasks such as leave, including emergency leave.

It cuts down the excessive administrative time it can take to manage employee time off, and allows both employers and employees to manage leave requests and approvals with the click of a button. 

If one of your team members needs to take emergency leave, they can log it in one click on their CharlieHR dashboard. This triggers a notification to their line manager, while the company calendar in Charlie is automatically updated to flag the team member is off for the day. 

You can also use Charlie’s reports to track the amount of time off taken by each team member — so attendance issues can be spotted before they become real problems.

Track time off taken and employee absences using Charlie

Try it for free, and give your team members the freedom to attend to their needs so they can bring their all to your business.

Click here to start a free trial of CharlieHR

Want to find out more about absences? Check out our guide on average number of sick days in the UK.

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