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Do employees have to work on Sunday?

Do employees have to work on Sunday? This is a question often asked by church goers who find that their employer places them on Sunday shift working which may clash with their religious worship.

The answer, however, is varied and has a number of dependencies. Many employees do not understand their rights and some employers may equally not understand that their activities and actions may lead to legal challenges.

Check your employment contract

Having to work on Sunday depends on a person’s employment contract. Employees should check what working arrangements are mentioned in either their employment contract or the written statement of terms and conditions. Only certain groups of employments contain special rules. An employee cannot be made to work on Sundays unless they and their employee agree and put it in writing.

Following the defeat of the Shops Bill 1986, compromise legislation came into force on 26 August 1994 allowing shops to open for six hours on a Sunday between 10am and 6pm only. The Christmas Day (Trading) act makes it illegal for large shops to open on Christmas Day whichever day of the week it falls on.

The bill was met with considerable opposition from the Lord’s Day Observance Society, Keep Sunday Special and other groups which as a coalition body included the shopworkers trade union USDAW. USDAW finally agreed to support 6 hour Sunday trading in return for the promise that Sunday working would be strictly voluntary.

The employees that do not have to work on Sundays are:

  • Shop workers who started their employment before 26 August 1994 and are still with the same employer (for Scotland the date used is 6 April 2004 and Northern Ireland the date used is 4 December 1997)
  • Betting shop workers who started before 2 January 1995 and are still with the same employer (in Northern Ireland the relevant date is 26 February 2004).

These employees are known as protected shop workers. If an employer attempts to dismiss such an employee for refusing to work on Sunday, it would be considered unfair dismissal by an employment tribunal.

Employers only have to pay employees higher hourly rates for working Sundays if the contract states it. All employees have a right to be told about their Sunday working rights when they first start work, if the employer does not spell out these rights then there are implications.

All shop and betting shop workers can opt out of Sunday working unless the employment is specially a Sunday only working day (i.e. they have specifically been employed to only work Sundays).

Opting in and opting out of Sunday working

Where such workers are employed to cover a number of days including a Sunday, then they have a legal right to opt out of Sunday working at any time, even if they originally agree to work on Sundays in their contract.

The employee is required to give the employer three months’ notice that they want to opt out of Sunday working. During the notice period they must continue to work any Sunday assignments their employers want them to.

An employer who needs staff to work on Sundays must tell the employee in writing that they can opt out and must do that within two months of the person starting work – this is where the catch is as some employers may not want to spell out the employees’ rights – if they don’t then the employee only has to give one months’ notice (not three) to opt out. It is illegal for the employer to treat employees who have opted out of Sunday working unfairly. They must not be dismissed or treated in any unfavourable way for choosing not to work on Sundays.

What if I don’t work in a shop?

These rights do not extend to other employment types. For example, employees of catering businesses, pubs, restaurants and cafes, do not count as shop workers and have no protection or right to not work on Sundays. And of course, some jobs always have and always will have an element of Sunday working requirement, such as essential emergency services and care organisations.

There is no right to opt-out of Sunday working; any agreement would need to be part of the contractual terms between the employee and employer. Dismissal for refusal to work on Sunday in these circumstances would not be considered necessarily as unfair dismissal.

Simon Parsons

  • 20th June 2014
  • HR
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