Coronavirus: What employers can do right now.
PLEASE NOTE: This article was written in line with developments up to and including 10 am on Thursday 12 March 2020.
The coronavirus issue (or crisis) is evolving rapidly and is affecting many parts of society. If Italy is anything to go by the spread of coronavirus could lead to a period of significant restrictions on movement and activities.
The workplace is an obvious area that could be significantly affected by the spread of coronavirus and the actions the Government takes. Yesterday (Wednesday 11 March 2020) the World Health Organisation labelled coronavirus as a pandemic. WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on governments to change the course of the outbreak by taking “urgent and aggressive action“.
We all woke up to the news that the USA has suspended travel to European countries (excluding the UK and Ireland).
So it is clear that the global reaction to the coronavirus is ramping up. The UK Government is now moving from the containment to the delay phase which may lead to “social distancing”. My understanding is that this could lead to cancellation of larger events such as football matches, music festivals etc and could lead to school closures. Time will tell whether this happens and also whether the Government follow Italy’s lead and put the country into some form of “lock down”.
Whatever happens coronavirus is and will have effects on the workplace. The effects on employers, employees and the workplace could be very broad and many remain unknown or unclear at the moment. There are however things that employers should consider now and be aware of.
Employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment as far as is reasonably practicable. No employer will be able to say its workplace is completely safe from coronavirus but they should do what they can to make the workplace as safe as possible. This can include:
- Ensuring that employees are made aware of the advice from Public Health England in particular regarding hygiene. Washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds and having a ready supply of hand sanitiser available.
- Ensuring that the cleaning regime is regular and effective.
- Encouraging employees who cough or sneeze to do so into a tissue. In the absence employees should perhaps use the crook of their elbow instead of their hands.
I have recently spoken with one employer who was considering introducing a rule where employees do not share pens and stationary.
Employers who send their employees to others’ sites or premises also have a duty to ensure that those work places are a safe as possible. This is practically going to be difficult but employers could ensure that such employees are provided with hand sanitiser and antiseptic wipes so that they can thoroughly clean the areas where they will work.
There was a welcome announcement from Chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of the Budget (11 March) on this issue. It was announced that for employers with less than 250 employees the Government will reimburse the cost of statutory sick pay for the first 14 days of sickness. No doubt further clarity on this will emerge in the coming days.
Prior to the coronavirus crisis statutory sick pay (£94.25 per week) became payable after an employee had been sick of three days (referred to as “waiting days”). Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that for those suffering or self-isolating due to coronavirus that statutory sick pay will be due from day 1 of the absence. The emergency legislation at the time of writing has not been published but it is expected imminently.
Employers should be aware of the following:
- Employees who are off sick with coronavirus/COVID19 = statutory sick pay is due.
- Employees who under medical advice (GP or 111) have been told to self-isolate = statutory sick pay is due.
- Employees who are told by their employer to stay away from work = full pay may be due.
- Employees who decide to self-isolate without medical advice or refuse to work = no pay and there could be the potential of disciplinary action.
Some employers are now choosing to close their workplaces either as precautionary measure or because there is concern that someone with suspected coronavirus has been in the workplace. I am personally aware of family members working in the City of London now being told to work from home.
Whether the move to the delay phase leads to workplace closures remains to be seen but it would not be a huge surprise.
If a workplace closes, then the employees will be told not to come into work. Those employees may not be ill and will be willing and able to work so under the terms of their employment contracts they are entitled to pay.
Employers should now be planning for this eventuality. Can their employees work from home? What steps can be taken now to allow work to be done from home?
This should be at the forefront of employers’ minds because it will happen to some and may happen to most.
Some employers may have lay off clauses within their contracts of employment or may be in an industry where it is common. Serious thought may need to be given as to whether they temporarily lay off employees.
Employers also have the ability under the Working Time Regulations 1998 to require employees to take holiday. To do so an employer must give notice to the employee which is double the amount of the holiday to be taken – e.g. two weeks notice should be given for holiday of one week. This may be an option for employers but will require some planning and probably decisive imminent action.
One issue that may not be considered by employers but is relevant is the need to protect employees’ personal data and information. Medical information is highly sensitive personal data so employers should not name employees who have contracted coronavirus or have self-isolated.
I would strongly advise employers to consider the following:
- Put in place plans now for how to cope with full or partial workplace closures or significant employee absence.
- Communicate clearly with employees what plans are to deal with the spread of coronavirus and regularly update employees as the issue evolves.
- Encourage good hygiene.
- Regularly review guidance from the Government – in particular the Public Health England website.
- Be prepared to act quickly.
- Be as flexible with employees where appropriate whilst at the same time ensuring that a consistent approach is taken to treat all employees the same and fairly.
I am happy for any employer to call (01752 513 549) or email me directly (Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org) if they have any questions, concerns or are seeking urgent advice on this developing issue.