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Coronavirus: What do Employers Need to Know?

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Original blog source - https://www.jobsatteam.com/blog/2020/03/coronavirus-what-do-employers-need-to-know

With the rise in Coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in the UK, businesses are keen to take steps to minimise the impact the outbreak could have upon them.

Below we list a number of steps and issues businesses may wish to take into account over the coming weeks:

  • Keep up to date with government guidance

Businesses should keep themselves updated on official and updated guidance from the UK government.

  • Reassure employees

Many employees and workers may be fearful of the potential spread of the virus, and this could lead to increased requests to work from home or precautionary sick days. These fears can be reduced by clear communications from the business in relation to steps that are being taken to reduce risks, such as stopping “at-risk” travel, the implementation of hand sanitizer regimes, and a clear reporting process for sickness absences.

You could do this by way of a guidance note or policy. As a firm, we have received a number of requests for policies and guidance notes.  We can assist with drafting such documentation as well as providing general advice on the legal implications of this issue.

  • Promote good hygiene

Public Health England recommends that simple hygiene rules (the same as for cold and flu) are followed including:

  • What to do when coughing and sneezing;
  • How to wash hands;
  • Trying to stay away from ill people;
  • Not touching your face with unclean hands; and
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects. 

Businesses should remind staff of these recommendations and encourage them to follow them.

You may want to place signs in the office dealing with "Catch it, Kill it, Bin it”, guidance on handwashing and placing hand sanitisers and tissues in your workplace for staff to use.

Make staff aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and what they should do if they become unwell

Most people will now be aware of the symptoms but it’s worth reminding staff what they are.

Where staff have become unwell and believe they have the symptoms of coronavirus they should dial NHS 111, stay indoors and avoid contact with other people immediately.

The government has also produced advice on what to do if an employee becomes sick at work. Familiarise yourselves with this so you know what to do and ensure that all staff are aware as well.

  • Returning from an affected area

The UK government has issued advice to those returning to the UK from specific countries or areas that people must follow. Businesses should keep up to date with the list and require staff to comply with the government's advice.

  • Staff who travel overseas for work

Businesses who have staff who travel overseas for work are urged to monitor the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice in relation to travel. Ideally trips to at-risk areas should be postponed, or carried out via an alternative media such as Skype.

  • Have a system in place for staff planning to visit an affected area

Where anyone is planning to travel to an area with a higher concentration of the virus, outside of work, they should inform you in advance and agree on a plan for managing this.

  • Staff who are self- isolating

If staff have returned to the UK from specified countries or areas then they must follow the UK government guidance.

Currently, the UK government advises that if you have not been to any of the specified areas then normal practice should continue and you should deal with your symptoms and the need for any time off in the usual way.

Staff who are self-isolating should notify their line manager or HR as soon as possible and keep them updated.

  • What should staff who are self- isolating get paid?

There has been a lot of debate about this over the past few days and the situation is likely to develop as the impact of Covid-19 develops.

Early ACAS guidance suggested that whilst there wasn’t a legal right to payment, if an employee or worker was self- isolating on medical advice, had to go into quarantine or was abroad in an affected area and could not travel back, it was good practice for businesses to treat their absence as sick leave, pay normal sick pay or agree for the time to be taken as holiday.

The Health Secretary then said that “Those in self- isolation on medical advice should be treated as on sick leave and may be eligible for SSP.” More recent ACAS guidance reflects this and reminds businesses that where an employer offers contractual sick pay, it’s good practice to pay this.

Given the legal ambiguity, if you are paying staff in full where they are self- isolating on medical grounds, then we would recommend that you reserve the right to review this in light of the developing Covid-19 situation.

Greggs, the bakers, is one business to adopt this approach. They are currently paying full pay to those who are self-isolating. They have, however, stated that this will be kept under review in light of how coronavirus develops.

Assistance may come from the UK government who have confirmed that “all options are under review” and more detail may become apparent in the budget.

The government has also announced that to help contain coronavirus emergency legislation will be brought in so that SSP will temporarily be paid from the 1st day of absence rather than the 4th day. Whilst this will be welcome news for employees or workers who are only paid SSP, the rate of SSP will almost certainly be less than their normal earnings and they may still be tempted to come into work.

According to the BBC, the GMB has urged the government to put in place legal measures to make sure staff are paid in full while they self-isolate. One measure suggested is an extension of the little-used right to suspend staff on health and safety grounds, which would be on full pay.

  • Where does this leave those who self- isolate without medical advice?

Their situation is less clear cut. Currently, they don’t appear to have a legal right to be paid SSP, so it will, therefore, be down to individual businesses as to how they deal with this.

  • What about those workers/ employees who don’t earn the minimum weekly earnings (currently £118) to be eligible for SSP?

Estimates suggest that the number of people this could affect is between 1 and 2 million. At the current time, the UK government has indicated that these workers may be eligible to receive certain benefits instead. Concerns have been raised about how long people would have to wait to receive such benefits.

  • And what about contractors and the self-employed?

While the main focus has been on employees and workers, spare a thought for those who are engaged by businesses as self- employed contractors. They are not eligible for SSP and don’t receive any payment if they are off sick.

This means freelancers and the self-employed are having to make a choice between self- isolating (and preventing the spread of coronavirus) and reducing their income (with no opportunity to get SSP), or carrying on working and risking spreading the virus. That’s a big burden for individuals to bear.

This is why the CIPD has been urging the government to set up a “hardship fund to help individuals such as the self-employed, temporary or low paid staff if they are not eligible for sick pay or paid leave” which would “help people in less secure employment get through these exceptional events and would minimise the risk of people coming into work and spreading the virus if they have been exposed”.

  • Discrimination 

There have been numerous reports in the news in relation to increased hostility and harassment towards those who are of an Asian origin due to the outbreak. Businesses need to be alive to this issue and make it clear than any instances of differential treatment or abuse due to an individual’s ethnic origin will amount to discrimination and will not be tolerated. Businesses may also wish to make it clear that inappropriate jokes or ‘banter’ in relation to the issue will not be tolerated.

Where an employer receives a grievance about such an issue or becomes aware of an incident, this should be dealt with swiftly in accordance with the company’s grievance and disciplinary policy, as would be the case with any other form of discrimination or complaint.

 

This contains a general overview of information only. It does not constitute, and should not be relied upon, as legal advice. You should consult a suitably qualified lawyer on any specific legal problem or matter

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