Coronavirus: What employers need to know

By Baines Wilson LLP

04 Mar 2020

Coronavirus has now spread to over 40 countries and is spreading throughout Europe. Whilst the general advice is not to panic as figures of those with the virus remain low, the risk level has been raised to moderate. How do employers prepare for the possible consequences of a spike in coronavirus cases?

Please note that this is not legal advice and if you require advice on specific circumstances, you should telephone 01228 552600 and ask for one of the employment team.

Employees with the virus

If employees have contracted the virus, they will be entitled to sick pay. If you do not offer contractual sick pay, employees can self-certify themselves for 7 days and will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay after 3 days. Beyond 7 days, they will have to contact their GP to provide a medical certificate. They will be entitled for Statutory Sick Pay for up to 28 weeks.

If an employee is not sick but is in quarantine or self-isolation, do we have to pay them sick pay?

If employees have been to one of the infected areas but do not display any symptoms, they may have to self-isolate. One of the options for quarantined employees might be working from home.

Where working from home isn’t an option, it is at the employer’s discretion whether they offer sick pay to employees in quarantine or voluntary isolation. At the moment, employers are not obliged to pay employees who are in isolation but are not sick. Self-isolated employees may feel that they cannot afford to lose their pay and may come to work anyway which creates risks to other employees. As employers you have a duty to employees to provide a safe work environment. ACAS therefore advises that it is ‘good practice’ to treat quarantine or self-isolation as sick leave. Employers could also agree with employees for the time to be taken as holiday. Depending on how the spread of the virus develops further guidance or legislation may be issued and we will keep you updated of any developments.

If as an employer, you ask an employee not to attend work for health and safety reasons, the employee is likely to be entitled to full pay, as the employee is ready and willing to attend work. Preventing an employee working may also be a fundamental breach of contract, entitling the employee to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal, however, it is unlikely that a Tribunal would find this a fundamental breach in these circumstances.

Where other employees express the view that they would like not to come to work to reduce the risk of spread, you should listen to their concerns and judge whether you can offer flexible working arrangements. Employees can also request holiday or unpaid leave in these circumstances, but employers are not obliged to agree to this. A refusal to come to work is potentially a disciplinary offence, however, we would advise you to seek further advice, should this situation arise.

Reducing costs

If your supplies are being hit due to coronavirus, it might be an option to suspend overtime to reduce the hours your employees are working.

Lay-offs and short-time working

If as a business you are experiencing a downturn in work as a result of the coronavirus, you may have to consider short-time working or lay-offs, or in the worst-case scenario, redundancies. Whether you are able to reduce working hours or lay employees off will depend on contractual terms or the agreement of the workforce. If you require further advice in this regard, please give us a call.

Actions

The current advice from the Department of Health is to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when you cough or sneeze, throw away tissues immediately after use and wash your hands frequently. You may want to reduce the risk of spread by displaying this advice around the workplace and issuing to individual employees. You could also provide hand gel and tissues to each member of staff and in public areas.

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