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Looking after your people

COVID-19 has caused huge disruption to workplaces across the UK. As the Government advises people to work from home wherever possible, employers and employees alike are rushing to ensure they understand their rights and responsibilities under the law.

As an employer you have a duty of care to your employees. In the context of COVID-19 this means helping people work from home wherever possible; providing tissues, hand sanitiser and appropriate spacing for employees who do need to come into the office; and keeping working environments clean.

Five things to consider:

  1. Have you identified and documented a suitable strategy for your workforce during the COVID-19 crisis?
  2. Have you identified all of your high risk people? Older people, those with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women need extra consideration.
  3. Do you have a clear policy for paying people, including when holiday pay, statutory sick pay and unpaid leave apply?
  4. How will you keep in touch with your people when they are working virtually and look after their mental wellbeing?
  5. How will you ensure people self-isolate in accordance with the medical guidance if they contract the COVID-19 virus?

Frequently Asked Questions:

Our employment team are currently receiving a large number of questions in light of COVID-19. We have put together a list of the most FAQs to help answer some of the questions you may have. 

What is being furloughed? 

There is no legal concept in the UK of being ‘furloughed’ and the chancellor could have used any term he liked on 20 March regarding the latest steps the government is taking to help employees.  Furlough is a concept from the United States and has been brought here into the current crisis.  There is very little detail so far on how this scheme will operate and what the rules will be.   

What we know at this time is that employers will have to designate employees as being on ‘furloughed leave’ and notify the HMRC through a portal (which is being built now).

We currently believe that:

  • HMRC will pay 80% of pay up to a cap of £2,500 (it is thought that this will essentially cover £30,000 of salary).
  • The 80% covers pensions and employee NI.
  • Employers do not have to make up the 20% in salary shortfall.
  • The employee must remain employed if the employer is claiming on their behalf.
  • The employee must not undertake work.
  • Holidays will continue to accrue during a furloughed period.

More details will follow as they are unveiled by the government.

If an employee is unable to come into work because of school closures, are they entitled to be paid?

Normally, employees can rely on “dependent” leave in the event of an emergency to make alternative arrangements for childcare. It is currently anticipated that schools will be closing for weeks or months due to the coronavirus.  Employers will need to carefully consider how practical it is for employees with childcare responsibilities to work from home.  The younger the child, the more challenging the situation.  Ultimately, if agreement cannot be reached then an employer may offer unpaid leave.

Employees who have more than one year’s service may also apply for a period of unpaid parental leave, which is limited to four weeks per child, per year for the purpose of caring for a child under the age of 18.

Are employees and workers who self-isolate entitled to any payments?

Employees and workers must receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they self-isolate because:

  • They have coronavirus symptoms (high temperature or new continuous cough)
  • Someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms
  • They have been advised to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111

The latest guidance is that if anyone has symptoms, they must self-isolate for 7 days if they live alone or 14 days if they do not live alone.

Changes to SSP were announced in the 2020 budget which will allow workers and employees to claim SSP from day one of absence (removing the waiting days) where they are required to self-isolate for any of the above reasons. Employers with less than 250 employees will be entitled to claim back, from the government, the cost of providing 14 days of SSP per employee.

Employees may be entitled to enhanced sick pay if the contract gives this benefit.

What if an employee, who does not have any symptoms, does not want to come into work due to the fear of catching the virus?

Employers should speak to the employee about any concerns that the employee may have. The employee may have an underlying medical condition or live with a person who is deemed ‘high risk’.  The employer will have to decide whether the employee’s refusal is reasonable or not.  If the refusal is reasonable then the employer could consider granting unpaid leave or time off as holiday. If the refusal is unreasonable, then the employer may consider what action to take using existing procedures such as the disciplinary policy.

Can you lay-off employees?

If employers are considering temporary lay-offs (where an employee is asked to stay off work unpaid for a temporary period) and/or short-term working (where an employee is asked to work less than their regular contracted hours) then they will need to ensure that they have an express contractual right to do so.  If the contract does not contain these rights, then the employee can resign and bringing a claim for constructive unfair dismissal and/or unlawful deduction from wages.  Employers can also agree reduce the employee’s hours for less pay on a temporary basis.