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Employment law for employees & Employment law for employers

Sport, Coronavirus and Employment Law

With the Premier League announcing that it intends to resume the season on 17 June, and horse racing having started last week, professional sport in the UK appears to be restarting. The sports sector has a workforce of several hundred thousand, and a number of employment issues can arise.

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Health and safety

First and foremost, in most people’s minds, will be the health and safety of employees and participants. Sports venue owners owe health and safety duties to anyone using their  premises, but here we concentrate on the duties owed to employees.

Employers owe a duty to take reasonable care of the health, safety, and welfare at work of all their employees. This includes undertaking risk assessments, providing all relevant information and seeking to reduce risk wherever possible by adjusting instructions and working practices.

A failure to comply with this duty of care could result in employment claims (such as constructive unfair dismissal) personal injury claims or, in the worst cases, a criminal prosecution.

Employers need to balance their understandable desire to resume sports activities with these extensive duties. The first step is a thorough and complete analysis of the risks to their employees and how these can be minimised. Whilst it is unreasonable to expect most sports sector companies to match the routine daily Covid testing carried out by the Premier League clubs, a court or tribunal will not have much patience with sports employers who put their employees at risk by not taking simple and affordable steps, or who dismiss employees for refusing to participate in sports activities which materially endanger their health.

Furlough leave

The furlough scheme remains open, in one form or another, until the end of October. (Please see our other updates for more detail on the terms and scope of the scheme).

Employers operating within the sports sector are and will continue to be good candidates to take advantage of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The cut-off date for any employers to place new employees on furlough leave is 10 June 2020. (Note that employees must be placed on furlough leave for a minimum of 3 weeks for the employer to qualify for financial support under the Scheme).

The furlough leave option applies just as much to professional athletes as it does to employed coaches and support staff. Other options include rotating staff on furlough leave or, from August onwards, to take advantage of the option to split staff time between furlough leave and working normally.

Restructuring and redundancies

The general expectation is that the sports industry will bounce-back to levels of popularity similar to those it enjoyed before the pandemic – but with restrictions on crowd numbers continuing for some time. The adverse financial impact of the lockdown rules plus the continuing social distancing restrictions mean that some employers may have to make cuts to staff numbers in order to survive, while some may see it as an opportunity to restructure. Redundancies at some companies in the sports sector look inevitable.

Just because coronavirus has caused a redundancy situation to arise does not mean employers have carte-blanche to act how they like. Given that fees for bringing  employment claims are no longer charged, and new employment may be difficult to come by, employees may are more likely than before to bring a claim. Employers should therefore be careful to ensure that they follow a fair redundancy selection and consultation process.

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