We are receiving a large number of enquires relating to the coronavirus outbreak. Here is some of the advice we are providing.
If you would like us to draw up policy guidelines for your business, or if you are dealing with a coronavirus issue as an employee, please give us a call and speak to one of our expert solicitors.
Practical guidance for employers on coronavirus
Here’s what we are doing at Springhouse, and what we are advising our clients to do:
- Keep staff posted and up to date regarding your plans for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. Obviously, you will want to reduce the risk of any incidences of the illness within your workforce, and provide up-to-date guidance – taking into account the most recent government advice.
- Make sure everyone can identify the symptoms of coronavirus.
- Make sure staff have good access to hand sanitisers and handwashing equipment.
- Give staff guidance on how to wash their hands properly, and how to avoid contracting and spreading the illness.
- You may also want to provide protective face masks. ACAS recommends this.
- Travel for work is a crucial area to think about. At Springhouse we have told staff not to travel unless absolutely necessary. We are well set-up for home-working and this would be a good opportunity to review your IT systems from this point of view.
- We are encouraging meetings with our clients using video-links. When we do have to meet a client face to face because that is what they want, we will first ask them whether they have recently returned from an area that is designated high risk by the government. If this is the case, which it hasn’t been so far, we may need to refuse the face to face appointment.
- Keep things in perspective: playing down the hazards may not be responsible, but neither would over-emphasising them. You need to choose the approach that is right for you and your business.
What to do if staff are off sick, and they think this is coronavirus-related
Employees should follow the usual routine when it comes to sick leave during the coronavirus outbreak. This should either be in their contract of employment or in a sickness absence policy. Usually they would be expected to let their employer know first thing on the first day of illness, and each day thereafter.
As an employer, follow your usual sickness absence processes and procedures. At present it would probably be unfair, if your employee has more than two years’ service, to dismiss them because they have been absent with coronavirus-related sickness.
Employees may have additional rights under Section 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This gives employees the right to leave a place of work where there is an imminent health and safety danger. This gives them the right to automatic unfair dismissal rights, where two years’ service is not required. However, this right will only be in the most extreme circumstances.
What if the employee needs to take time off work to look after a dependent with coronavirus?
Again, the usual processes should be followed. Bear in mind that employees with dependants do have a right to emergency time off, and these circumstances may cover such a situation. The amount of time taken off must be reasonable for the situation.
You will obviously need to think about suspending the employee who will have had direct contact with the virus. Please see below our views about self and imposed isolation.
What if the employee self-isolates on medical advice?
Employees on self-isolation on medical advice should be treated as on sick leave and are eligible for statutory sick pay. Medical advice will typically be written advice issued by a GP or by 111. For more information, please see Government guidance on self-isolation. The employee will probably be entitled to any company sick pay in the usual way.
However if your contract doesn’t oblige you to pay sick pay and you decide not to, consideration needs to be given about whether the member of staff or dependent has any underlying medical condition e.g. an affected immune system in which case disability may come into play.
What about employees who do not want to go into work because they fear contracting COVID-19?
There is no clear answer here. Each circumstance will need to be taken on its own facts.
However, it would be sensible to discuss this with the member of staff in question and to explore whether there may be some temporary flexible working arrangements that can be put in place. Alternatively, consider whether any unpaid leave or holiday can be taken under the circumstances.
If an employee does continue unreasonably not to attend work due to fear of coronavirus, disciplinary action may properly be taken against them, but again this will depend on the particular circumstances of the case.
What if you wish to suspend the employee from work without medical advice (imposed isolation)?
You will probably need to suspend the employee on full-pay but it is a good idea to take advice if this is an issue for you.
What if someone becomes ill while they are at work?
There is some great advice on the ACAS website. In brief they advise as follows:
- The individual should be kept at least two metres away from other people, and in a separate room.
- They should avoid touching anything.
- If they are coughing and sneezing they should always do so into a tissue and put the tissue into a bin.
- They should use a separate bathroom from others.
- Dial 111, or 999, depending on the level of the emergency.
ACAS is at pains to point out that a business does not have to close just because someone with coronavirus has come onto the premises. They point out that the local Public Health England health protection team will assist if they are contacted as to how to deal with the situation.
Can I reduce my employees’ hours, or not pay them temporarily?
Have a look at your contracts of employment. They may entitle you to lay staff off or have them work shorter hours when there is a downturn in work. You need to be aware that in certain circumstances using these powers might end in statutory redundancy if the employee elects this. This is an unlikely scenario in the current crisis however.
If your contracts do not allow for this, you should seek the agreement of your employees.
If you need to unilaterally impose the change because no agreement is reached, you need to be wary of the situation where an employee is ‘working under protest’ , in which case you could be liable for an unauthorised deductions from wages claim.
Better to bring matters to a head on the basis that the employment will have to end if the new working arrangements are not agreed. You would then have two alternatives – redundancy or business-reason termination. In either case where employees have more than 2 years’ service you will need to be careful to have a business rationale and follow a proper procedure. No matter how long the employee has been with you, you will need to avoid making decisions on the basis of any protected characteristic as this could amount to unlawful discrimination or because of something the employee has said or done relating to the pandemic (or otherwise in normal cases).
Furlough – what is it and can I use it?
We have information about Furlough here. The information applies as well for employers as it does for employees.
What do I need to bear in mind when my employees are working from home?
Working from home where possible will now be the norm, and you need to bear in mind the following:
- If you do not have a clause in your employment contracts giving you the right to make your staff work from home (known as a ‘mobility clause’), you should first agree this with your employee. If they do not agree this is likely to be a reasonable and lawful instruction given the current crisis, to your employee’s refusal could be a disciplinary matter.
- As an employer you still have a duty to provide a safe place of work. You will need to make sure that your staff can work safely, with a decent desk set up for instance.
- You need to bear in mind your responsibility to keep your customers’ data safe. Depending on your working systems, you may need to put some special rules in place.
- A working from home policy and a health and safety checklist will be a good idea and should cover everything off in a straightforward way.