Working Hours and Leave Entitlements – Rights and Obligations

The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 (the 1997 Act) sets out the obligations and entitlements of employers and employees respectively under Irish employment law. In addition to these legislative provisions, an employee’s contract of employment ought also to make reference to shifts, breaks, overtime and entitlement to annual leave.  This article will explore the minimum legal obligations with which an employer is to comply and the legal rights that an employee is entitled to enjoy under the 1997 Act.
Working Hours
An employer must ensure that his/her employers are provided with the minimum breaks and rest periods as provided for under Irish legislation.
In each 24 hour period, an employee is entitled to a rest period of at least 11 consecutive hours. Furthermore, an employee is entitled to an uninterrupted rest period of at least 24 hours in any 7 day period. Alternatively, an employer may choose to permit the employee to take two days of uninterrupted rest in the following 7 days period.
An employer must ensure that his employees do not work more than an average of 48 hours per week.  This does not mean that an employee’s working week can never exceed 48 hours. It is the average period of time – usually four months – that is taken into consideration. Therefore, the average number of hours worked over this four month period must not exceed 48 hours per week.
It is also of note that the above provisions may deviate slightly in relation to night workers. Special rules apply to ensure the health and safety of this category of workers.  A night worker should not work more than 8 hours in a 24 hour period. In addition, the average number of hours worked per week is to be calculated over a two month period.
Leave Entitlements
The 1997 Act provides that an employee is entitled to four working weeks paid leave per year in which he/she has worked at least 1,365 hours. It must be borne in mind that a working week is interpreted as the number of days the employee normally works in a week. In addition, this four week holiday entitlement is the minimum period as set out by the legislation. Therefore, an employee’s contract of employment may provide him/her with more favourable periods of leave if he/she so wishes.
The time at which an employee chooses to take his or her holiday leave can often be a bone of contention between an employer and employee. Though an employee is entitled to take this leave within the leave year, regard must be had for the needs of the employer’s business. A balance must therefore be struck between the business needs of the employer and employee’s need for rest and recreation.
Finally, it is essential that an employer is aware of the consequences of breaching the provisions of the 1997 Act.  An employer may be ordered to comply with the requirements under the legislation and/or may be ordered to pay compensation of up to two years remuneration to the aggrieved employer. Furthermore, it can be said with conviction that an employer’s failure to observe these provisions under Irish law will be detrimental to staff morale. Therefore, employers would be well advised to comply with the provisions of the 1997 Act to avoid the wrath of both the law and overworked employees!