With the number of countries affected by coronavirus increasing every day, and with many businesses now operating in a truly global marketplace, how do you protect your workforce and your business from the threat and what are your obligations to your staff?
Much of course will depend however on the size and nature of your business and the risks that you need to assess, but set out below is some practical guidance to follow:
Will you have to pay sick pay?
The starting point will always be the employee’s contract of employment and any relevant policies in relation to sickness absence and pay. If an employee is off sick due to coronavirus the normal rules for sick pay apply. Any discretionary element of sick pay should be considered fairly and without discrimination to avoid arguments of unfair treatment.
How do you deal with employees in isolation?
What perhaps isn’t as clear is what an employer is obliged to do and what they are obliged to pay if an employee returns from a high risk area and either you as their employer or a medical professional advise them to remain at home and self-isolate.
If, as an employer, you decide to tell an employee not to come into work for 2 weeks following a holiday to a country that has suffered from a COVID-19 outbreak, “just to be on the safe side”, then they should be paid as normal.
The default legal position is that there is no obligation to pay an employee or worker who is not sick but cannot work as they have been told by a medical professional to self-isolate or to go into quarantine. However, following concerns raised by businesses and individuals, ACAS has issued guidance on this topic and advises that it will be “good practice” for an employer in this situation to treat any absence as sickness absence or to offer the employee the option to take a period of paid annual leave. What an employer does not want to do is to effectively force an employee back to work as they cannot afford to be off work without pay and risk spreading the virus to the remainder of the workforce as this could arguably be a breach of their duty of care.
What about employees who refuse to come into work and they self-isolate? Are they entitled to sick pay?
What can you do as an employer if an employee refuses to come into work due to genuine concerns about either catching coronavirus on public transport on the way to work or from colleagues in the workplace?
The first thing to do is to listen to their concerns and try to reassure them. You may be able to consider flexible working arrangements including working from home or be able to allow them to book holiday or take unpaid leave. Ultimately, you will need to decide what is reasonable in the circumstances for your business whilst always following any advice from Public Health England on how to manage the spread of the virus. However, an employee who refuses to attend work could be subject to disciplinary action.
Practical steps to keep your business running as normal
- Ensure that staff contacts numbers, emergency contact details and your business recovery plan are up to date.
- Make sure that everyone is aware of the symptoms and what to look out for if they or their colleagues feel unwell.
- Encourage staff to use and throw away tissues correctly, wash their hands frequently and/or to use sanitiser gel which you may decide to provide.
- Make sure that everyone is familiar with the sickness absence policy and knows who to contact if they are feeling unwell.
- Consider whether any travel planned to high risk or affected areas is essential or whether the meeting or business can be conducted remotely or in another way?
What if you need to close the workplace on a temporary basis?
You will need to plan and organise how your business will operate if you need to close the workplace on a temporary basis. Consider which members of staff could work from home and consider whether it is appropriate that equipment is provided including laptops and mobile phones etc. You will also need to consider what tasks could be performed at home by staff whose job does not require them to work on computers and think about how you will ensure everyone is still able to communicate with each other. If you need to close your workplace or temporarily lay off members of staff then you will need to check your contracts of employment to determine whether you will still need to pay your staff during this time or not.
What to do next?
When considering any course of action for your business it is important to ensure that it is applied to all your workforce fairly across the board, particularly ensuring that no discriminatory actions are taken against any members of staff with Chinese heritage or family members, reminding staff about your equality policies and acceptable standards of behaviour. Comments made in the workplace, and in particular misjudged “jokes” could lead to costly Employment Tribunal claims in the future so be open with your staff, reassure them that you have a continuity plan in place and remind them of your expectations when it comes to their conduct towards each other.
You should also ensure that you speak to any contractors or consultants that you engage within the business as whilst they will not be entitled to sick pay in the same way as employees, you will still need to ensure that they are aware of all relevant policies and plans for the business in relation to how the risk will be managed and what will be expected from them.
If you have any questions about how to safeguard your workforce and your business in light of the risk from coronavirus, please contact Julie Edmonds, Head of Employment, by email (email@example.com); telephone (0207 644 7286) or contact her on LinkedIn.