Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for employers Updated 16.03.2020
As the situation with Coronavirus (COVID-19) develops and the number of confirmed cases in England and Wales increases, it is essential that businesses are prepared for possible outbreaks in their workforce.
At the time of writing, up to date figures are that around 25,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 with around 380 people confirmed as suffering from the virus. Government guidance is that those people who have recently travelled to the UK in the last 14 days from Iran, Hubei province of China, Special care zones in South Korea and as of 9th March all areas of Italy, have been advised to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people.
So, what does this mean for employers?
*NEW GUIDANCE* Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
On Friday 13th March, the Government has announced that the emergency SSP provisions will be extended to anyone isolating themselves from other people in such a manner to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus. This is in circumstances where they have been in close contact with someone who has the virus (so is likely to be dependents). You can reclaim the SSP amount from the Government. If the dependents are off just due to a school closure and not due to suffering from symptoms of coronavirus, there is no entitlement to paid leave. The option would be to take dependents leave (which is emergency unpaid leave), parental leave which is unpaid leave of a maximum of 18 weeks leave for each child under 18, or holidays.
The Government has recently introduced emergency legislation to temporarily amend the eligibility requirements in order for an employee to claim statutory sick pay (SSP). The usual provisions are that SSP is not payable for the first three qualifying days of any period of incapacity for work.
The new emergency legislation allows those employees who are in isolation with coronavirus symptoms or due to being in any of the affected areas to claim SSP from day one of their period of absence.
Those employees who are required to self-isolate and do not have symptoms of coronavirus would need to provide a written notice from a registered medical practitioner or environmental health (e.g. from NHS 111 or a GP) which confirms they have been advised to self-isolate.
Employees who have recently returned from a high risk country
Other practical considerations that employers may want to keep in mind is whether they will want an employee who has recently travelled to an affected area to come into the workplace. This will largely depend on the employer’s own assessment of the circumstances and whether the employee being at work would create a further risk to the workforce. In these circumstances, it would be beneficial to discuss whether home working is an option for the employee and if the company has the systems in place to allow home working. If homeworking is not an option and, if there is a great enough risk, an employer could assess whether the employee would need to be suspended from duties
If an employee is deemed to be a risk to the wider work force and therefore suspended from duties and required to self-isolate, then they would be entitled to their normal rate of pay. However, suspension must be considered in light of all the circumstances of the case, so should not be a step taken lightly by an employer. If an employee voluntarily remains away from work, without being advised by a medical professional and obtaining written confirmation to self-isolate, then an employer could discuss whether this self-imposed period of absence should be unpaid.
In the unlikely event that a workplace needs to be closed for a short period of time, in the absence of a lay-off clause within an employee’s contract, the employees would still be entitled to be paid at their contractual rate of pay. If an employee has a lay-off clause within their contract then this could cover such a situation and the rate of pay, if any, would be governed by the contract.
If an employee’s children are sent home due to school closure then an employer may want to grant home working as an alternative to working in the office. Alternatively, employees have a right to take dependents leave. This is emergency leave to care for a dependent which is unpaid. An employee may also wish to use unpaid parental leave if the period of closure extends over a prolonged period.
Current Employee Travel Plans
Due to the uncertainty, employees may also wish to cancel their travel plans in cases where annual leave is already booked and approved. In these circumstances it would be advisable to allow this, where possible, to ensure that employees do not feel they have to take annual leave where they will not get a benefit from this.