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    Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Guidance to Employers

    Summary

    Head of Employment Helen Crossland details the guidance employers should consider in regards to COVID-19.

    COVID-19 has quickly become a global pandemic, with increasing numbers of coronavirus cases being reported every day. Businesses and employers are facing challenges across the board, and will need to take steps to best manage the threat to the health and well-being of their employees, and adapt to the impact on their business and workforce.

    Seddons’ Head of Employment, Helen Crossland, has prepared some practical guidance that employers will need to consider when ensuring the continuity of their business in these uncertain times.

    If you have any questions surrounding employment issue relating to COVID-19, or have any general employment related inquiries, please contact Helen on 0207 725 8034 or at helen.crossland@seddons.co.uk

    Who should self-isolate?

    Self-isolation requires an individual to remain at home for 14 days, and to limit contact with others. On 10 March 2020, Public Health England (PHE) advised self-isolation for the following:

    • People who have travelled back from an area where COVID-19 is known to be present, who have symptoms and are awaiting a test result;
    • People who are identified as being in close contact of someone with COVID-19;
    • Returning travellers from anywhere identified by PHE as a Category 1 country or area, even if they do not have symptoms;
    • Returning travellers from anywhere identified by PHE as a Category 2 country or area, if they do have symptoms (even if the symptoms are mild).

    Employers have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of their workforce and should instruct employees who fall within these groups, or who have been in close contact with anyone who does, to self-isolate and not attend work. 

    Are employees entitled to be paid during self-isolation?

    An employee who self-isolates because they have developed symptoms of COVID-19 is entitled to the sick pay provisions stipulated in their contract of employment. This could also apply to those waiting to be tested.

    The government has stated that an employee who is not showing any symptoms, but who is advised to self-isolate, will be entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP). They may also be eligible for occupational sick pay (generally paid inclusive of SSP), depending on how their contract of employment defines their right to sick pay. Under some contracts, an employee will have no right to occupational sick pay unless they are absent due to actual sickness or injury. 

    Payment of SSP during the coronavirus crisis 

    The government has announced that employees will receive SSP from the first day, rather than the fourth day of absence. Further, businesses with less than 250 employees can recover any SSP paid to employees for the first 14 days of absence. 

    Employers are being encouraged to relax the need for fit notes and letters from GPs or 911 during this time to ease pressure on health services.  

    What if an employer needs to close the workplace or respond to reduced work levels?

    It is advisable for employers to formulate a contingency plan in the event they need to close the workplace suddenly and/or temporarily. 

    This may include setting up a messaging service, such as text or WhatsApp, and ensuring they have up-to-date contact details for all staff, i.e. personal phone numbers and emails. Businesses should also remind staff to take home company laptops and mobile phones each day, in the event the workplace needs to close or an employee has to self-isolate. If an employer must close its workplace or business for a short time, unless agreed otherwise, they would still need to pay employees during this time. 

    If employers find work levels diminishing or disappearing due to the impact of the coronavirus, they could consider placing all or some employees on short-time working (reducing their hours and pay on a temporary basis), or laying staff off for a time. However, unless contracts of employment contain an express entitlement to do this or there is an implied right (it being custom and practice in certain sectors), it would be a breach of contract. 

    Implementing such a measure could therefore carry a risk of claims for constructive dismissal and/or unlawful deduction of wages, unless an employee gives consent. As this is a unique situation affecting businesses globally, if employees are informed of the essential business need and the possible alternatives, such as compulsory redundancies, employees may be more inclined to accept temporary measures, however unwelcome.  

    Regrettably, employers may also need to consider the need for redundancies, voluntary or compulsory, if their business has been particularly impacted and will likely be for some time. In this case, however genuine the need, employers must still follow a proper process when making redundancies to reduce further risk of claims.

    The information contained within this guidance is correct as at time of publishing, however it is likely to change over the coming days and weeks. Businesses should always take government advice into consideration. If you are unsure on how to handle any issues that may arise, please get in touch.

    Useful links:

    https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/coronavirus-covid-19-uk-government-response
    https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html
    https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-specified-countries-and-areas/covid-19-specified-countries-and-areas-with-implications-for-returning-travellers-or-visitors-arriving-in-the-uk

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