There really is only one main headline in the news at the moment and we have been receiving a steady stream of enquiries from our clients about a range of issues surrounding the coronavirus and measures that are currently in place to contain and delay its spread. It is proving difficult for employers to know what the most accurate advice is to give employees when the picture is changing rapidly.
We’re using our March newsletter to provide answers to some of the questions we are most frequently being asked.
HOW CAN WE AS AN ORGANISATION PREPARE FOR THE POSSIBILITY THAT EMPLOYEES WILL NEED TO SELF-ISOLATE?
Many organisations will already have some form of business continuity plans in place to address situations like these. The key aspects of any such plan are:
- Identifying a person or group of people to take responsibility for operating the business continuity plan.
- Ensuring that there is a clear method of communicating with staff to provide information and updates. This can be done via an intranet or through email or text message. If possible, this method of communication should be available to those who are in work and self-isolating.
- Ensuring that everyone’s contact numbers and details are up to date.
- Ensuring that the advice and updates given are consistent across your organisation and are up to date with government guidance.
- Having resourcing solutions in place that can cover staff shortages. This is more likely to be an issue where organisations rely on roles which can’t be performed at home. It may be necessary to revisit shift patterns or rotas to cover operations or services.
- Utilise home working where it is possible to do so to prevent the spread of infection.
- Limiting non-essential travel particularly to areas identified by government guidance and possibly limiting non-essential face to face meetings, utilising technology where possible.
SHOULD EMPLOYEES WHO ARE SELF-ISOLATING RECEIVE SICK PAY?
Whether an employee is entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) will depend upon the circumstances of their absence.
If an employee has the coronavirus then they will be entitled to sick leave and sick pay in the usual way.
Following a government announcement last week, if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee to self-isolate then they should receive SSP. That entitlement will be from the first day of absence (there is no 3-day waiting period applicable). It would also be good practice in these circumstances to pay any contractual sick pay to which the employee is entitled.
If an employee chooses themselves to self-isolate when they are not required to do so, either as a result of government guidance or because their employer has told them to, they will not be entitled to SSP or contractual sick pay.
CAN AN EMPLOYER STILL REQUIRE NOTIFICATION IN LINE WITH THE SICKNESS ABSENCE POLICY?
Organisations should make it clear to staff what the notification requirements in relation to sickness or self-isolation are. These may well be the same as under the employer’s sickness absence notification procedure, however there may be additional requirements e.g. notifying human resources as well as their line manager.
On the basis that much of the medical advice provided to employees will be over the telephone via a doctor or NHS 111 it is unlikely that they will be able to provide a fit note unless they have been diagnosed with the virus, and possibly not even then. In view of the unique circumstances employer’s may need to be flexible in terms of the evidence provided by the employee for their absence.
WHAT IF AN EMPLOYEE REFUSES TO COME TO WORK?
The employer should listen to any concerns the employee may have in relation to their work environment and seek to address those concerns. If an employee unreasonably refuses to come into the workplace and there is no feasible alternative, such as working from home, then the employer may need to take disciplinary action.
WHAT IF AN EMPLOYEE WANTS TIME OFF TO LOOK AFTER SOMEONE ELSE?
Employees are entitled to reasonable time off work to help a dependant (this can include a spouse, partner, child, grandchild or parent) in an unexpected event or emergency.
This could apply in relation to situations relating to coronavirus, for example:
- If an employee needs to stay home because their children’s school has closed and there is no alternative childcare option available; or
- They have an elderly parent who is taken into hospital or told to self-isolate as a result of the virus.
There is no statutory right to pay for this time off. That will depend upon your organisation’s policy. Employers may consider that certain circumstances resulting from measures taken in relation to the coronavirus are unique, for example the mandatory closure of schools, and determine that it is appropriate to pay employees for some or all of the period they are required to take off.
CAN EMPLOYERS COMPEL EMPLOYEES TO PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT THEIR HEALTH STATUS OR POTENTIAL EXPOSURE TO CORONAVIRUS?
Employers are under a duty under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 to provide a safe and secure working environment, and information from employees about their exposure to the virus and their health status is likely to be necessary to undertake such a risk assessment. Employees are under an obligation to comply with any reasonable instructions issued by their employer and an employer can take disciplinary action should an employee fail to comply with a reasonable request. In the circumstances therefore, requiring employees to provide information about their potential exposure to the virus and their health status is likely to be a reasonable request.
Further information for employers is available from the following sources:
The guidance from the government is ever changing, and will likely do so as the situation evolves. It is crucial to ensure that you have a nominated person, or persons, within your organisation tasked with keeping abreast of the situation and the guidance, to ensure that your organisation is doing all it should do. It is then vital that you have open communications with your employees to ensure they are kept up to date and know what they need to do when they need to do it, whether that means personal hygiene, sickness absence and pay or facilitating working from home. The “worst case” scenario may never hit, but you are encouraged to plan for it to ensure you are ready.
If you need any assistance please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Employment team