Coronavirus – An Update for Employers

By Rachel Davis

Principal Associate

The coronavirus disease, officially named COVID-19, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. As the virus continues to spread, it is posing significant challenges to many organisations who are understandably concerned about the long-term effects on investment, cash flow and the future of their businesses. Workers are also under tremendous personal and professional stress in these times of uncertainty.

What is Coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a virus which spreads where there is close contact between people. Common signs of infection include a fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

What Employers Need to Know?

In these uncertain times, with advice changing daily, employers may be wondering what measures they should be taking and what rights their employees have.

Practically. there are a number of measures employers should consider taking in order to mitigate risk and prepare for potential issues:Keep up to date with government and public health advice

  • Develop and communicate a contingency plan, assessing the level of exposure to business disruption, including service delivery and workforce issues
  • Encourage and support employees to work at home, wherever possible, to reduce the spread of coronavirus
  • Employees from defined vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, should be strongly advised to stay at home and work from there if possible
  • If someone becomes unwell in the workplace with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they should be sent home and advised to stay at home for seven days
  • Employees are required to self-isolate in some circumstances in which they have no symptoms, including if they have been in contact with a confirmed carrier or have recently travelled to a restricted area
  • Those who follow advice to stay at home will be eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day of their absence from work
  • Employers should use their discretion concerning the need for medical evidence for certification for employees who are unwell
  • Ensure everyone’s emergency contact details are up to date
  • It is not currently necessary to close the business or workplace or send any staff home, unless government policy changes

Supporting Employees and Limiting the Spread of Coronavirus in the Workplace

Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety, and to provide a safe place to work. There is also a moral responsibility to ensure employees feel safe and secure in their employment. Many people will be concerned about the risk of infection and will need reassurance.

In order to reassure employees and help reduce the spread of coronavirus it is good practice for employers to:

  • Reduce uncertainty by communicating openly and honestly with staff
  • Keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace
  • Make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace is potentially infected and needs to take the appropriate action
  • Encourage hygiene measures such as hand washing and provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff.

Sick Pay

The government has announced that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will be payable from the first day of sickness, instead of day four. SSP will be available to anyone isolating themselves from other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus, including:

  • Those who have symptoms of COVID-19
  • Those who have been advised to self-isolate even if they themselves are not sick
  • Those who are caring for people in the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate

By law, medical evidence is not required for the first seven days of sickness. After seven days, government advice is that employers may use their discretion around the need for medical evidence if an employee is self-isolating.

An alternative option to providing sick pay is to allow staff who are asked to self-isolate to work from home wherever possible, or to take holiday, and continue to pay them as normal.

Employees who voluntarily choose to self-isolate without symptoms, and without their employer’s agreement, could be required to attend work by their employer. However, employers are advised to take people’s concerns seriously, especially if there are underlying health conditions, including mental ill health.

The government has announced that businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be reimbursed for any SSP paid to employees in respect of the first 14 days of sickness related to COVID-19.

The government has also put a range of support in place for those who do not receive Statutory Sick Pay, including Universal Credit and Contributory Employment and Support Allowance.

Employees Sent Home on Health and Safety Grounds

If an employee has to be sent home because of a possible risk of infection, they have the right to continue to receive full pay.

Where an employee is willing and able to perform work in accordance with their contract, there is an implied term that the employer has a duty to pay wages. An employee in these circumstances will not be entitled to SSP because they are not unfit to work.

Employees Who Need Time Off Work to Look After a Dependant

The government has announced that schools in the UK are to shut until further notice. Schools will close except for looking after the children of keyworkers and vulnerable children.

Employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off work to look after a dependant, such as a child or someone else who depends on them for care, in an unexpected event or emergency. This will apply to COVID-19 situations, such as:

  • To look after children because their school has closed
  • To help a dependant who is sick or needs to go into isolation or hospital

In these situations, there is no statutory right for paid time off, but employers may use their discretion to pay employees as normal, depending on the contract or workplace policy.

This is the default position until the government announces whether any further assistance will be made available.

In this rapidly changing situation, we advise employers to continue to monitor the situation, keep up to date with government and medical advice and keep staff updated accordingly.