Over the last couple of days, we have seen more and more being reported about COVID-19 (coronavirus) and suggestions for what employers should do.
The most shocking statistic we have seen widely reported is that up to a fifth of the workforce may be on sick leave at one time. Putting this into perspective however, the mortality rate remains very low at approximately 1% and is a considerably lower risk and mortality rate than the common flu each year.
In light of this, we set out below our general advice on employers’ obligations and some practical tips.
Things you can do
As you will be aware, employers have a duty to help protect the health and safety of its employees. As such a risk assessment should be carried out and procedures should be put in place to protect employees.
It is therefore good practice to:
- Keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace;
- Make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact numbers are up to date;
- If you have a disaster recovery procedure, make sure it is up to date;
- Make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant sickness reporting, sick pay and procedures if someone in the workplace develops the virus;
- Make sure there are clean places for individuals to wash their hands with hot water and soap and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly;
- Provide hand sanitisers and tissues to staff and encourage use of them;
- If possible, identify a designated room, an “isolation room” where an employee can go if they feel ill and need to ring 111 or if seriously ill, 999;
- Increase cleaning;
- Consider flexible working and working from home; and
- Consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential.
What to do if someone becomes unwell at work
If someone becomes unwell at work and has recently come back from an affected areas or it is suspected that they could have coronavirus, they should:
- Remove themselves from other people (at least 2 metres away), use a separate bathroom and cough or sneeze into a tissue and “bin it”;
- Go to a room on their own or an area behind a closed door; and
- Phone 111 or if seriously ill, 999.
Once reported, Public Health England will get in touch with you to discuss the case, identify any people who have been in contact with the affected person, carry out a risk assessment and advise on any actions or precautions to take. Depending on the situation, the workplace does not necessarily have to close.
There are a number of different scenarios and the general principles are as follows:
- You decide to close the business of part of the business – you will have to pay all staff as normal.
- You decide that an employee should not attend work (for example if they have returned from an affected area) – you must pay that member of staff as normal.
- An employee is ill and unable to attend work – they are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) in accordance with the usual rules or company sick pay where provided.
- An employee decides to self-isolate but is not ill – there is no legal right to sick pay in these circumstances. However, if the employee has been told to self-isolate and been issued with a notice, they should be paid SSP. The Government is encouraging employers to pay sick pay as good practice to prevent unwell staff from attending work and infecting others.
- An employee is stuck somewhere because of an outbreak or isolation – you would generally not have to pay them, but you could suggest they take further holiday entitlement if they wish to do so.
- If schools or nurseries close as a precaution or due to an outbreak, staff may need to take leave – this would be time off for dependents and unpaid leave. It should only be in place until other arrangements can be put in place. Employees can request holiday if they wish to do so, which, if agreed, would be paid as usual.
- You do not have sufficient work for the employees to undertake due to having reduced customers or supplies etc. – this is a temporary layoff or short-time working situation, where your contracts contain a “lay off” clause. Please consult your contracts of employment. If your contracts do not have this clause, then you will have to reach an agreement with your staff or otherwise, continue to pay them as usual. If the situation continues for a lengthy period, then this could become a redundancy situation.
- If employees do not want to come to work due to concern for catching coronavirus – listen to the concerns of the employee and if possible, offer flexible working arrangements such as working from home. Employees can also request time off as holiday or unpaid leave and this can be granted at your discretion. You may wish to consider doing so, however, particularly if the employee is elderly or has a particular condition which would make them more vulnerable.
- An employee simply refuses to attend work without good reason – then you are entitled to take disciplinary action. Please seek advice prior to doing so.
The government has also today announced that workers will be entitled to SSP from day 1 of sickness, rather than having to wait until day 4, to prevent infected staff attending the workplace.
This is meant as general guidance on the obligations of employers from a legal perspective and is not medical advice. Specific legal advice should be taken.