Tina Chander, of law firm Wright Hassall, shares her advice for employers during the Coronavirus pandemic…
Could coronavirus slow important business operations?
The coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) has made headline news due to the serious health concerns it has raised, but its impact on global stock markets could also be a threat to businesses across the world.
The Government has announced that statutory sick pay will now apply from the first day off work, not the fourth, as sick employees are encouraged to self-isolate to protect fellow colleagues. This decision has raised more questions about sick-pay and working from home.
Although the number of UK cases is relatively low compared with other parts of the world, businesses with globally connected workforces must take steps to protect their employees, especially as the virus spreads to more people.
Reducing the risk to employees
An important first step for businesses to take is to share official information and advice with their workforce, ensuring employees are aware of the symptoms and know what protocols to take if they’re sick.
Once this information has been shared, it may be wise to designate an available space as an ‘isolation room’, where those displaying symptoms can go to contact NHS 111 for further medical advice.
Other steps to take include:
- Ensure that the contact numbers and emergency contact details of all members of staff are updated
- Ensure that managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus and how to spot them
- Disseminate information across management on issues such as sick leave and 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 in place, including hot water and soap
- Dispense hand sanitisers and tissues to employees
- Weigh up the pros and cons of supplying protective face masks to employees who may be working in particularly high-risk scenarios
Given the advice around thorough handwashing, it’s crucial that workers are encouraged to take their time and aren’t penalised for taking longer than usual.
Good practice starts with good communication and regular updates for all employees, by email, note on the desk, poster on the noticeboard, update on the intranet, etc., will demonstrate the organisation is taking the situation seriously and doing all it can to protect its workers.
What to do if an employee becomes unwell
If you suspect an employee may have the virus, then they should be removed from the proximity of other colleagues and placed in the ‘isolation room’, ensuring they follow all the necessary precautions.
The employee when calling NHS 111 should be advised to give the operator the following details:
- Their symptoms
- The name of any country they’ve returned from in the past fortnight
Uncertainty over the seriousness of the virus, the exact nature of the symptoms and concern about the situation regarding issues such as sick pay may lead to some employees coming to work despite having contracted the virus, without necessary feeling unwell.
If this does happen, then an employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team and they will discuss and outline any precautions which should be taken.
The Position on Sick Pay
If an employee is off sick with the virus then the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as it is with any other illness, however the employee is now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of work, not the fourth.
The government has stated that 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 by the employer.
In some cases, employees may be able to work from home while in self-isolation. However, in many cases, if an employee cannot attend their place of work, they will be unable to work.
Currently, there is no bespoke advice for specific industries, but as the impact of Coronavirus spreads, we may see more advice and contingency plans develop to ensure essential and core services continue to operate.
In some cases, an employer might prefer an employee not to come into work, if they’ve returned from a high-risk area for example and in these circumstances the employee should receive their usual pay.
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.
As things stand at present it is still unlikely that any workplaces will have to close as a result of the virus, but it’s a potential risk and organisations should have contingency plans in place, including:
- Making sure that employees will be able to get in touch with the employer and any other members of staff they need to liaise with
- Ask employees to take mobile, tablets and mobile phones home with them to work from home
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 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.
It may be appropriate to remind staff that jokes and banter, even if light-hearted, may easily slip over the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.
Employers can avoid liability if they can show they took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent employees behaving in such a manner.
Taking reasonable steps can include having well publicised diversity and harassment policies and training all staff on the issue. Managers must also be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviour.
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has also encouraged people to work from home where possible, as another effective social distancing measure. For this reason, employers should be taking steps to protect their workforce, ensuring the official advice and guidance is made available during a period of uncertainty.
About the author: Tina Chander is a partner and head of the Employment team 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.