Coronavirus and Your Business – getting ready for all staff eventualities

Coronavirus is dominating the news. We have watched it spread from China, across the Middle East and it is very much taking hold in Europe over the past few days. Now is the time to think about how this might affect your business and its employees, with the range of possible impacts from staff going off sick to full workplace closure.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officers have raised their assessment of risk in the UK from low to moderate, with emphasis on containment and planning. For employers thinking about how best to manage their business and the workforce, this note sets out the employment law implications of the Coronavirus and what employers should be thinking about doing now.

What can you do now to prepare?

Employers can take simple measures now to protect the health and safety of their staff and their business:

  • Educate staff without causing panic e.g. consider sending emails or putting up posters outlining the current situation, government advice or simple etiquette about coughing or sneezing;
  • Encourage staff to use tissues, wash hands or use hand-sanitisers after coughing, sneezing, using public transport or arriving at the workplace;
  • Consider if work-related travel is necessary or whether home-working with videoconferencing or telephone conferences can be used instead;
  • Regularly clean frequently-touched communal areas including door handles, hot-desk keyboards, phones and desks;
  • Keep the government guidance under review. The Department of Health and Social Care currently give daily updates gov.uk/government/organisations/department-of-health ;
  • Check insurance policies e.g. in relation to work-related travel;
  • Assess the IT systems so that it is able to cope with an increase in staff working from home;
  • Implement communication plans in the event of a workplace closure.

Employment law considerations of the impact of the Coronavirus

Employers should educate themselves about the employment law implications of the government’s current advice on self-isolation and quarantine, as well as the effect on business if there is a more widespread outbreak. Our advice for dealing with the range of affected staff follows:

  1. Staff who have been diagnosed with the Coronavirus.

The employer’s usual sick pay and leave requirements will apply if someone has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus. Employees should be reminded to notify you as soon as possible if they are not able to go to work and to keep in touch regularly thereafter.

  1. Staff who have been quarantined or been told by a medical expert to self-isolate.

Even if the individual has not be confirmed to have the virus, employers may choose to treat this absence in line with their usual sick policy and sick pay. Inevitably this may mean that some staff may receive no pay or SSP, and you may decide to exercise discretion and make other arrangements so that they are not out of pocket, but this is not obligatory. Alternatively, you could consider agreeing with the employee to take the time as unpaid leave, or holiday. If they are fit, well and able to do so, another option would be to agree that they can work from home until the quarantine period comes to an end.

  1. Staff who are not sick but who have been:
  • in contact with an infected person, or
  • have recently travelled from an affected region, or
  • have the symptoms associated with the Coronavirus

Employers have statutory and common law duties to ensure the health and safety of their employees and to provide a safe place and system of work. Similarly, employees have duties to ensure that they do not endanger others by their actions or omissions.

Employers should first check with advice from Public Health UK or the relevant health body on whether there are health risks associated with an individual attending work. Given its health and safety duties, an employer would be justified in instructing an individual not to attend work or instead work from home until the employee’s GP has confirmed that they are not infectious. In this case the absence would be a medical suspension and the employee should get their usual pay.

  1. Employees who do not want to attend work for fear of contracting Coronavirus

If the individual has genuine concerns of contracting the Coronavirus the you could consider, if possible, putting in place flexible working arrangements (e.g. working at home). If this was not possible, and the employee still did not want to attend work then the employer could agree with the employee to take holiday leave or unpaid leave. Ultimately, if the employee still refuses to attend work it could be a dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

  1. Temporary workplace closure

Employers should put in contingency plans as early as possible in the event that the Coronavirus escalates and results in workplace closures. Plans could include alternatives such as homeworking, working from different premises, or enforced holiday. In the event that an employer asks staff to work from home there should be clear arrangements in place to enable them to do so. Similarly, you should ensure effective communication with the workforce to keep them updated while the workplace is closed. An early review with the IT department would be advisable to ensure that there is adequate coverage and equipment if all staff are asked to work from home.

Unless there is provision in the employment contract to the contrary, staff should be paid as normal during this absence even if they are not able to work from home.

  1. School closures

Schools and nurseries may, of course, be closed as a precautionary measure, with an inevitable impact on working parents who may have no feasible alternative childcare. If the parent is an employee, they are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off to deal with an emergency, although this would not normally extend beyond a day or so. There is no statutory entitlement to pay in such cases, although you may have policies which provide otherwise. If there are extensive closures and staff have no alternatives, you could also ask them to take annual leave or unpaid parental leave, or alternatively come to arrangements about working from home, if this is realistic.

Discrimination risks

Finally, mindful of some worrying stories of certain groups, such as Chinese people, being the target of racist abuse from those in fear of contracting the virus, employers should be particularly careful about managing the risks of indirect and direct race discrimination when taking steps to manage staff concerns and issues arising from the virus. The risk of vicarious liability for employees who racially harass colleagues will loom, unless “all reasonable steps” are taken to prevent employees acting in such a manner. On that basis a request not to attend work in case of potential exposure to the virus should apply to staff regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin.

Further Advice

If you have any queries about managing the Coronavirus in the workplace please do get in touch with us The following websites may also help and some are updated daily:

www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-of-health

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19

https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk

If you would like further advice tailored to your particular circumstances, please give us a call.