12th March , 2020

Posted by. Tina Chander

What employers should know about Coronavirus COVID-19

Advice for employers as Coronavirus impact spreads

With an entire European country in lockdown and businesses increasingly impacted by the coronavirus, it is clear the situation has moved beyond just a risk to health.

Although workers will get statutory sick pay from the first day off work, to help contain coronavirus, arguing people who self-isolate are protecting others and should not be penalised, this raises more questions about sick-pay and working from home.

Reducing the risk to employees

The first step is to share the advice given by official bodies with the workforce; do not assume everyone is paying attention. Other steps include:

• Ensure the emergency contact details of all members of staff are up to date
• Ensure managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus and how to spot them
• Share with managers information on issues like sick leave, sick pay and the procedures to follow if an employee develops symptoms of the virus
• Ensure that facilities for regular and thorough washing of hands are available, including hot water and soap
• Dispense hand sanitisers and tissues to employees
• Consider supplying protective face masks to employees who working in higher risk scenarios

Organisations should advise all employees to wash their hands thoroughly and let them know they will not be penalised for the extra time taken.

Also, provide regular updates for all employees, which will demonstrate the organisation is taking the situation seriously and doing all it can to protect its workers.
An employee becomes unwell.

If an employee exhibits symptoms, they should be directed to a designated ‘isolation room’ and encouraged to avoid touching surfaces if possible, while coughing or sneezing into a tissue and disposing of it immediately. They should use a separate bathroom if one is available.

The employee should then call NHS 111, advising the operator of their symptoms and any country they’ve returned from in the past fortnight.

Some employees may come to work despite having contracted the virus, without necessary feeling unwell.

If this happens, their employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team who will take control of the situation and outline any necessary precautions.

The Position on Sick Pay

If an employee is off sick with the virus, the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as with any illness, but they are now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day off.

The complicating factor is the need for people returning from high risk areas to self-isolate for 14 days.

Currently, if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate then they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them or contractual sick pay, if this is offered.

Employers should demonstrate flexibility around the fact that a self-isolating employee may not get a ‘fit-note’.

An employer might prefer an employee not to come into work if they’ve returned from a high-risk area and in these circumstances the employee should receive their usual pay.

Employees may be reluctant to come into work due to general concerns about the virus, particularly if they belong to a group at higher risk of complications, like those with existing medical conditions or the elderly.

In such cases you should offer flexible solutions such as working from home if possible.

Alternatively, although there is no legal obligation to do so, you could offer the time away from work as a holiday or unpaid leave.

Ultimately, there is no obligation on an employer to allow an employee to stay away from work and, if the non-attendance causes issues or extends beyond an emergency precaution, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action.

There are some scenarios in which an employee may need time off work to care for a dependant as a result of the virus, like a child needing care because a school has been shut.

There is no obligation to pay in these circumstances and the decision will be based upon wider workplace policy.

It may pay organisations to review any supply contracts they have to understand the implications of their business activities being interrupted by the virus or changes to Government advice, with the position on whether insurance would cover COVID-19 losses remaining unclear.

No time to be divisive

Employers must also take steps to ensure that no members of staff, customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.

Remind staff that jokes and banter, even if light-hearted, could easily become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.

Employers can avoid liability by show the ‘reasonable steps’ taken to prevent employees behaving in such a manner, like having well publicised diversity and harassment policies, and training staff on the issue – managers must be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent such behaviour.

About the author:

Tina Chander is a partner at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. She acts for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising in connection with all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.
About the firm: Wright Hassall is a top-ranked firm of solicitors based in Warwickshire, providing legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, debt recovery, employee incentives, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.