Employers... Do they know it’s Christmas?

This Christmas Day across the UK, around one million people will be hard at work. Among them, carers, nurses, security guards, bar, kitchen and waiting staff,... and of course thousands of vicars! And come Boxing Day, there’ll be no sleeping off the festive excess for thousands of retail staff, customer service centre workers and temps called in to cover the post-Christmas sales.

If you are one of them, you may be expecting your employer to offer you some kind of pay-off for turning up to work while everyone else is busy enjoying themselves. Here we look at where the law stands on five common questions about Christmas working. (Check your contract of employment to be certain about what applies to your own circumstances.)

Should I get paid overtime?

That’s up to your boss – unfortunately, there is no legal requirement for them to pay you more (even if you have to work Christmas Day itself), although many employers will offer extra. And if they’ve consistently paid an overtime rate in previous years (what’s called ‘custom and practice’ in the legal jargon), they can’t suddenly take that away.

How much should I get paid then?  

At the very least, you are entitled to the minimum wage (here are the current minimum wage rates). It’s not unheard of for unscrupulous employers taking on temporary staff while business is brisk to try to get away with paying less than the minimum wage. This is illegal. There is no minimum wage protection for the self-employed.

Do I have to work if I don’t want to?

While Christmas Day and Boxing Day are bank holidays, this doesn’t entitle everyone to the day off. Employers simply have to give their full-time staff 28 days annual leave a year (how this works), bank holiday or no. Many jobs (such as in the emergency services and the media) have always worked on bank holidays, but employers in many other sectors now expect their staff to work bank holidays too. Bank holidays are often peak trading days for retailers, for example. (Most shop workers however do not have to work Christmas Day owing to the Christmas Trading Act 2004 which prohibits most large stores from opening.)

Although there is no automatic right not to work on Christmas Day, most people have the right to time off on Christmas Day through their contract with their employer.

You can always ask to take annual leave and, if you’ve given proper notice, your boss can only refuse if there is a good business reason. However, you may find that the busy Christmas period is just such a reason. Many employers try to be as fair about it as possible about who gets time off at Christmas by rotating which staff get called in each year or who gets first-dibs on the best shifts.

Do I get Monday off when Christmas Day falls on a weekend?

Not necessarily – your employer may need you to work the bank holiday, as described above. However, you certainly won’t ‘lose’ these days of holiday. If a bank holiday is on a weekend, a ‘substitute’ weekday becomes a bank holiday, normally the following Monday. If Boxing Day falls on a Saturday, the following Monday is a bank holiday. If Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, the following Monday and Tuesday are bank holidays. So, in this instance, even if you have to work on Monday (or Tuesday), you can ‘bank’ these holidays for a later date.

I'd rather work through Christmas. Do I have to waste my annual leave?

In many businesses, you will have to take time off whether you like it or not over the core Christmas period as offices and workplaces are shut down entirely. If you don't really do Christmas, this is irksome enough. But it's particularly unfair on members of other faiths who may want to use up valuable time off for their own religious festivals, such as Hannukah, Eid, Kwanzaa or Diwali.

All companies now have to comply with the religious discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010. Whatever the constraints around Christmas, employees must wherever reasonably possible, be allowed enough flexibility to take leave for their own religious holidays and festivals. (If this is an issue where you work, you should ask your company if they have reviewed their policies on taking holidays and the timing of shutdowns at Christmas. Your workplace union can help with this.)

See our Christmas Issues section for more about your entitlements over the festive period.