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Covid-19: FAQs for employers

19th March 2020

Covid-19: FAQs for employers

Since the World Health Organisation’s announcement that the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is officially a pandemic, the UK government has urged people to work from home wherever possible and to socially distance themselves.

Inevitably, many workers are going to be off work at the same time, affecting how businesses operate across the country.

We have set out below some advice on the questions we are frequently being asked by our clients regarding issues such as self-isolation, social distancing, sick pay, school and workplace closures.

If you would like further advice on these or any other matters affecting your business at this time, please contact the Higgs & Sons’ Employment team.

What steps should employers be taking to protect their employees?

We recognise that protecting the health, safety and welfare of your employees is of primary importance, so you should consider taking the following steps: 

  • keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace
  • allow employees to work from home, where possible
  • consider extra precautions for staff who might be more vulnerable, for example if someone is pregnant, aged 70 or over, or has a long-term health condition
  • make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace shows symptoms of the virus
  • consider if any travel or meetings are necessary and if meetings can be held via the telephone or video conferencing instead
  • make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly
  • frequently clean objects and surfaces which are touched regularly using standard cleaning products
  • provide hand sanitizer and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them
  • ensure everyone's contact details are up to date.

What is the current advice if someone falls ill with coronavirus symptoms at work?

If someone falls ill at work, they should:

  • first and foremost, inform their employer and go home
  • try their best not to not touch anything
  • use a different bathroom to others in the workplace
  • cough or sneeze into a tissue or the crook of their elbow. Tissues should then be placed in the bin.

The unwell person must self-isolate at home for 14 days if they live with others, or seven day if they live alone.

If someone with coronavirus comes to work, the workplace does not necessarily have to close, but the employer should follow a strict cleaning routine following the advice on the government website.

What pay arrangements should apply for employees that are self-isolating or socially distancing, in accordance with the advice of Public Health England (PHE)?

If someone is advised to self-isolate by PHE, they will be entitled to their usual sickness absence pay, whether this be statutory sick pay (SSP) or contractual sick pay.

Currently workers are being advised to self-isolate if they: 

  • have coronavirus
  • have a new continuous cough or high temperature
  • live with someone that has a continuous cough or high temperature
  • have been told to self-isolate by a medical professional or NHS 111

Workers who live alone must isolate for seven days. If someone in their household has one of the above symptoms, they must isolate for 14 days. Employers should regularly check the public health guidance on self-isolation, as it directly impacts who is entitled to SSP (or, if applicable, contractual sick pay) at this time.

It is also appears the government intends that SSP (or, if applicable, contractual sick pay) should be paid to employees from defined vulnerable groups (who have been strongly advised by PHE to work from home and to socially distance themselves) that are not able to work from home. This includes those who are:

  • aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
  • under 70 with an underlying health condition (namely, those individuals that are instructed to have a flu vaccination each year on medical grounds)
  • pregnant.

Alternatively, employees may choose to take a period of annual leave during this time in preference to taking sick leave and receiving sick pay. This should be permitted, however, it should not be a requirement imposed by the employer.

If employees are able to work from home whilst self-isolating or socially distancing, this should be encouraged and they will be entitled to their full pay for time spent working from home.

The government has announced that it will be bringing emergency legislation into force so that SSP will become payable from the first day of absence rather than the fourth. This will entitle eligible employees to an extra £40 a week.

The government has also announced that small employers (with fewer than 250 employees) will be reimbursed for any SSP paid to employees in respect of the first 14 days of sickness related to COVID-19.

What should employers do if an employee does not want to come into work, but is not required to isolate or strongly advised to socially distance by PHE?

If employees do not want to come into work because they are worried about being exposed to coronavirus, or infecting someone they live with, but they do not fall within the category of people who are being advised to self-isolate or is regarded as a vulnerable individual, ACAS recommends that employers should listen to their concerns and try to come to a workable solution.

This could involve a period of flexible working; working from home where possible, or the employee taking the time off as holiday or unpaid leave.

If the employee refuses to attend work, and the issue cannot be resolved, the employer may be entitled to take disciplinary action.

What if employees are unable to work due to school closures?

Where an employee needs to look after their child because of school closures, they may assert their right to take a reasonable amount of time off to care for a dependent.

Employees do not have a statutory right to paid time off in these circumstances, although some employees may be entitled to pay under their contract of employment.

Following the announcement of the closure of schools on Friday 20 March 2020, and given that they could remain closed for a relatively long time, it is likely that many employees who consider that they can undertake some work while providing childcare would prefer to do so (rather than assert their statutory right to time off) if the employer is willing to allow them to work flexibly.

In normal circumstances, it would not be appropriate for an employee to work from home while also providing childcare. However, as the COVID-19 outbreak escalates, employers may need to take a pragmatic approach. Employers may therefore want to consider taking a more flexible approach to homeworking, to enable employees to manage both working from home and childcare needs.

What if an employer has to close the workplace?

Some employers are already concerned that they may need to reduce staff and other costs for the foreseeable future as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact on their businesses. As a result, some employers may wish to consider the implications, should they need to close the workplace temporarily.

In some situations, an employer might need to close down their business for a short time, or ask staff to reduce their contracted hours.

If an employer thinks they may need to do this, it's important to take advice as early as possible. Employees will most likely be entitled to receive their full pay during this time, unless the contract of employment provides for lay off or short time working, or it is agreed otherwise with the employees. It would therefore be sensible for businesses to plan ahead given the ongoing uncertainty as to what lies ahead in the coming weeks and months.

If you would like to discuss any of these issues in more detail, you can contact

Tim Jones on 07815 167206 or tim.jones@higgsandsons.co.uk

Katherine Cooke on 01384 327143 or katherine.cooke@higgsandsons.co.uk

If you have any other general queries or concerns that you feel we can assist with then please email supportingyou@higgsandsons.co.uk and somebody will get back to you as a matter of urgency.

 

This advice note is up to date and accurate as at 19 March 2020.

 

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