Coronavirus – latest developments and impact on the work place
PLEASE NOTE: This article was written in line with developments up to and including 11am on Friday 20 March 2020.
This is my second article on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the workplace. My first article was published on 12 March. It has been quite a week for us all as the crisis has deepened and now has a greater impact on all aspects of life, not least the workplace.
Wednesday 18 March brought the news that schools, colleges and nurseries would be largely closing with effect from the end of today (Friday 20 March). This brings a whole new challenge to both employees and employers over childcare.
Many grandparents, who previously may have been lent on in the circumstances, cannot be if they are over 70 or have any longstanding health conditions. This means many parents will now be giving serious thought over how to juggle their responsibilities as both parents and employees.
The Government has confirmed that the children of key workers can still go to school. The Government has now published the categories of key workers and I would strongly advise all employees and employers to carefully review the lists to work out if they or their employees fall within the categories. A good summary of the categories is:
- Frontline health workers such as doctors and nurses.
- Some teachers and social workers.
- Workers in key public services including those essential to the justice system, religious staff, and public service journalists.
- Local and national government workers deemed crucial to delivering essential public services.
- Workers involved in food production processing, distribution, sale and delivery.
- Public safety workers including police, armed forces personnel, firefighters, and prison staff.
- Essential air, water, road and rail transport workers.
- Utilities, communication and financial services staff, including postal workers, and waste disposal workers.
Employees who are key workers are still able to send their children to school to allow them to work and keep key functions of the country and economy moving.
The Government’s guidance appears silent on the issue where one parent is a key worker and one is not as to whether their children could go to school. From my reading of the guidance it would appear that the Government hopes that in those circumstances the non-key worker parent stays home to look after the children. However, that does not appear to be policy.
There are options for employees who have to look after their children.
- Time off for dependents. This is a statutory right for an employee to take “reasonable” time off to look after a dependent – i.e. their child or children. This leave is unpaid.
- Parental leave. Again this is a statutory right for employees to take a maximum of 18 weeks unpaid leave until their child is 18 years old. Parental leave is limited to 4 weeks in any one year. To qualify an employee must have been employed for at least 1 continuous year.
- Flexible working request – A further statutory right that allows an employee to make one request in a 12 month period for changes to their hours of work. Employers can refuse a request on eight specific business reasons.
Depending upon the coronavirus crisis and how long the current restrictions are in place employers may see more flexible working requests being made. My advice is for employers to make sure that they have a flexible working policy in place and to be familiar with their obligations and duties.
Sick leave and pay
As this week has progressed the advice on social distancing has in my view created a degree of uncertainty over when an employee is deemed to be ill/sick as a result of the coronavirus and therefore cannot attend work. It is my view this is an unintended consequence of the Government’s attempts to deal with the crisis quickly.
The rules on statutory sick pay were extended last week (The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020). These confirm that an employee is deemed sick/ill in the following circumstances:
- They are isolating themselves from other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus disease, in accordance with guidance published by Public Health England, NHS National Services Scotland(d) or Public Health Wales(e); and
- They are incapable of work
The current advice is that people should self-isolate in the following circumstances:
- They have coronavirus.
- They have coronavirus symptoms, for example a high temperature or new continuous cough.
- Someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms.
- They have been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111.
For those living alone who have symptoms, they must self-isolate for 7 days. It is 14 days self-isolation for all those living in a household where one person has the symptoms.
If anyone else in the household starts displaying symptoms, the person with the new symptoms must self-isolate for 7 days. This is regardless of where they are in the 14-day isolation period.
For those employees in self-isolation they are entitled to SSP of £94.25 a week (provided their average weekly pay is no less than £118).
The disconnect or inconsistency comes with the Government’s advice on social distancing. The advice at present is for those over 70, those with underlying health conditions and those who are pregnant as they are deemed to be “vulnerable adults” and are advised to avoid social interaction as much as possible. But, that does not mean they are ill and therefore cannot attend work.
I have seen a number of issues already where employees, who are vulnerable adults, have been confused as to whether they should or should not attend work and if they do not what will happen. For employees who cannot work from home if they do not attend work because of social distancing they will not receive sick pay (as they are not sick or ill) and risk not being paid. They may also be the subject of disciplinary action over their refusal to go to work.
My guess is that a number of employers have already been faced with this issue and many more probably will be. My advice to employers is to make clear to employees:
- When they will be deemed to be absent due to sickness, what they will be paid and what reporting procedures should be in place.
- When they will not be deemed to be absent due to sickness.
- How that absence will be viewed.
- What steps (if any) can be taken with those employees who are either nervous or refuse to attend work because of social distancing, including what pay (if any) will be made.
This is a stressful time for all and I would advise employers to engage with nervous employees to understand their reluctance to attend work so that possible measures or changes can be put in place to allow those people to work. I would also advise employers to be mindful whether any underlying physical or mental conditions may be classed as disabilities under section 6 of the Equality Act 2010. If they are, employers should not forget their obligations to consider making reasonable adjustments.
This crisis is unprecedented. I have recently spoken in the media about how it is apparent that the employment rights and protections we have are not designed or fully capable of coping with coronavirus pandemic.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak will later today unveil further plans to support employers and employees and I would strongly advise all to watch what he says closely.
Employers especially need to understand their obligations to the employees and also their options so that they can react quickly and decisively as this issue continues to unfold.
I am happy for anyone to call or email me to discuss any employment issues regarding coronavirus. I can be contacted directly via email – Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone 01752 513549 / 07584255816.