What the law says
Workers have a right to a minimum of 5.6 weeks' paid annual leave under the Working Time Regulations 1998. This amounts to 28 days for a full-time worker, pro-rata for part-time workers reflecting the number of days they work each week.
There is no statutory right for workers to take time off (paid or otherwise) on any bank or public holiday. Whether a worker can be required to work or not on a bank or public holiday is entirely a matter for their contract.
Bank holidays and part-time workers
The position of part-time workers in relation to public holidays is not particularly clear. Some employers only give the benefit of bank or public holidays if the holiday in question falls on a day on which the worker would otherwise normally be at work. However, this may be in breach of the Part-Time Workers Regulations 2000, because some part-time workers (generally those who do not normally work on Mondays, or those whose working days are variable) could be treated less favourably than comparable full-time workers.
It is generally thought that the simplest way to achieve equality is to give part-time workers a pro rata entitlement to public holidays, regardless of whether they normally work on days on which those holidays fall.
Holidays and discrimination
While the majority of Christian religious holidays, such as Easter, are provided for as bank or public holidays in the UK, there is no equivalent provision for non-Christian festivals. This can mean that employers have to balance numerous requests for holiday during times when the business is fully operational. Where there are a large number of employees who want to take the same time off, it may not be possible to accommodate everyone due to the needs of the business.
Employers will need to act reasonably in dealing with holiday requests and establish a fair system for granting leave that meets the needs of the business but does not put employees of any particular religion or belief (or those who do not hold any religious beliefs) at a disadvantage, because this risks claims of discrimination on grounds of religion and belief. What is reasonable will depend on the size of the employer, its resources, and the number of employees requesting leave at the same time.
A similar risk applies in respect of indirect sex discrimination and requests for time off to look after children during school holidays. Tribunals accept that more women than men have caring responsibilities, so an inflexible policy that vetoed annual leave at certain times that coincided with school holidays could be open to challenge if a worker was unable to find alternative childcare arrangements in place.
Employers need to ensure that full consideration is given to the practicability of accommodating holiday requests where these relate to religious belief or childcare obligations, and not simply dismiss them out of hand because it is a busy period or others already have holiday booked.
If, after consideration, an employer needs to refuse a request it must be able to justify this by reference to genuine business reasons unrelated to the employee’s religion or belief or childcare responsibilities. It should also handle the situation sensitively by seeking to reach a compromise with the individual where possible, for example, by putting the employee to the top of the queue for next year.
Antonia Blackwell is a senior associate in Shoosmiths' employment team
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