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Seasonal demand: Coping with the rush

December is a busy time for many businesses, particularly retailers who have to deal with a spike in demand as the Christmas period approaches. What are the main options available to deal with the seasonal rush?

The simplest strategy is to try to make do with the existing workforce. Increasing overtime and offering weekend or evening work may be enough to bridge the gap. But if more labour is needed, then new heads will have to be brought in.

Using agency workers is one possibility. Employment agencies take much of the administrative burden of finding appropriate staff, and can respond quickly to fluctuating needs. But employers also need to be aware of the Agency Worker Regulations, which give workers entitlements to the same employment conditions as permanent employees after a 12-week qualification period. Good communication with the agency will help everyone stay on the right side of compliance issues.

Zero-hour contracts can give great flexibility to employers and workers. Normally these contracts create an employment relationship in which there's no obligation for one side to offer work, nor the other to accept it. They avoid the cost of agency fees and make it straightforward to take on extra staff when needed. But it's important to point out that zero-hours workers have the same rights and protections as other workers, such as annual leave, the National Minimum Wage and pay for work-related travel.

It may be more appropriate or effective to use short fixed-term contracts, and buy in labour for a particular project or period. Fixed-term work terminates after a specified period, but contract workers are entitled to the same pay and conditions as permanent staff, equivalent benefits, information about permanent vacancies, and protection from unfavourable treatment. It's good practice to make notice provisions in fixed-term contracts in case employment needs to be terminated early.

Free, impartial advice on the ins and outs of employing people is available from the Acas Helpline on 0300 123 1100.

You can also get detailed information online about Agency workers, Zero hours contracts and Fixed Term Work on the Acas website. Acas also runs practical training courses on Employing People - A Practical Introduction and Contracts and terms and conditions.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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