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Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Guidance for employers

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues, employers are presented with several challenges affecting individuals and business operations.

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As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues, and the UK moves from the containment to the delay stage, employers are presented with several challenges affecting individuals and business operations.

The primary duty of an employer in these circumstances is to safeguard the health and safety of their employees. In practice, this means ensuring effective hygiene, good communications, and working practices that do not pose undue risks to staff.

Sickness absence policies should be reviewed and updated to enable businesses to manage the risk of Coronavirus, with applicable sick leave. Government guidance now states that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is available from day one when an employee is advised to self-isolate, instead of day four of any sickness absence.

Whilst employees and workers often benefit from contractual sick pay and automatically qualify for SSP, self-employed contractors are not eligible and financial pressures could result in them continuing to work even when it would be safer for them to self-isolate.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced new measures in his Budget on 11 March as follows:

  • SSP (£94.25 per week) will be extended to those who are eligible and asked to self-isolate even if they have no symptoms from the first day of quarantine;
  • Employees can now obtain a sick note through NHS 111 rather than seeing their GP;
  • Self-employed are not usually eligible for SSP but the Government will make it quicker and easier to get benefits for those on zero hours contracts or those earning less than £118 per week.
  • For businesses with less than 250 employees the Government will meet the cost of providing SSP to its employees for up to 14 days.

As concern grows, some employees may request to work from home. Any request should be considered based on the circumstances of the individual. Certain employees may face a greater risk of developing severe illness (e.g. those with underlying health conditions) and it may be appropriate to carry out a specific risk assessment.

Employers may have an express and contractual right to require employees to work from home but if this is not the case its unlikely to be a breach of duty to insist staff work from home particularly if supported by a Coronavirus policy. Enforcing home working will, however, need to be dealt with sensitively and employees can rightly expect to continue receiving full pay unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Conversely, it’s also possible to require office-based working whilst recognising genuine concerns of staff regarding their preference for agile working to avoid commuting and exposure to a greater risk of contraction than is necessary. However, staff who unreasonably refuse to attend work could face disciplinary action.

Current guidance does not require an office to close if a member of staff is diagnosed with the Coronavirus. Public health officials will, however, be in touch to undertake a risk assessment. If the office needs to close temporarily for safety reasons, make sure contingency plans are in place to allow continued communication with staff. In most cases employers will need to continue paying the workforce during any period of office closure.

Key guidance

COVID-19 presents challenges for employers and a rapidly changing landscape. Collyer Bristow offers this advice in line with Government recommendations:

  • Basic hygiene is crucial. Wash hands regularly, use hand sanitiser, and use disposal tissues to catch coughs and sneezes. Increase office cleaning.
  • Keep informed. Make sure you know how to recognise COVID-19 symptoms, stay up to date on government guidance and guidance from the World Health Organisation, particularly regarding overseas travel. Ensure remote working structures and available and accessible.
  • Keep in touch. Communication with staff is key. Keep them informed on steps being taken. Make sure emergency contact details are updated.

Business Needs

Many organisations are experiencing a slowdown as a result of the outbreak, particularly those in the hospitality, travel and retail sectors. Whilst it maybe premature to predict the long-term impact there are more immediate concerns that staffing levels may not be sustainable and if this is the case then we recommend a confidential discussion about options that are available.

You are contacting

Tania Goodman

Partner - Head of Employment

tania.goodman@collyerbristow.com