As the coronavirus (COVID -19) starts to spread throughout the UK, it is important that employers consider a number of important employment law questions relating to the illness and how it could affect their workforce. It is also important for business owners and boards to consider any plans they may need to implement if the government put certain measures in place in terms of closing schools or for work places having to close.
Do we have to pay them sick pay If an employee is not sick but is in quarantine or self-isolation?
This has been covered by Boris Johnson in Parliament and employees who qualify for Statutory Sick Pay will now qualify from day 1 rather than day 4 where their doctor or NHS 111 have advised them to self isolate. It has also been suggested that if there is contractual sick pay then it would be best practice to pay this as well although any entitlement to sick pay will be as detailed in the contract of employment.
Where any employee has not been advised to self isolate but have chosen to themselves you should ask the employee to speak to their doctor or NHS 111 to clarify the position as to whether or not the self isolation is needed.
An employer may need to be flexible with regard to whether or not a GP fit note is required as most employees may find it difficult to obtain one for the first 14 days because the advice is to speak to NHS111 rather than visiting a GP. An employer can pay SSP if they have sufficient evidence that the employee is ill and it is not a legal requirement to produce a ‘sick note’ on an occasion such as this.
If you tell an employee who is not ill and who has not been advised to stay away from work to stay away from work you should pay full pay.
Where an employee needs time off to look after someone else for example if schools were shut or if someone was poorly then this would be dependent leave.
Employers however are likely to be encouraged to look at home working as an alternative where it meets the needs of the business as well.
Can an employer suspend an employee suspected of having coronavirus?
There may be a right to suspend the employee in the contract of employment. If not, as there is a duty to protect the health and safety of employees then arguably there is an implied right to suspend the employee in these circumstances to protect the rest of the workforce. However, employers should not single out employees due to their race or ethnicity as this could give rise to harassment claims.
The best thing to do in this circumstance is to ask the employee to call 111 NHS from their mobile phone and inform the telephonist which country they have visited in the last 14 days and what their symptoms are and for them to follow the advice given and relay this to you after the call.
ACAS have issued guidance on what to do if someone falls ill at work.
What if employees do not want to come to work due to the risk of catching the coronavirus?
It is good practice to carefully listen to the concerns of your employees about the risk of catching the coronavirus and work with your staff to ensure other employees are not conducting themselves in such a manner which would make a colleague feel targeted from harassment.
It is important that you inform your staff what will happen if they choose not to attend work so they are clear what may happen if they are not sick. If you are going to consider them AWOL or on unauthorised absence you should advise them of this and also confirm it in writing. Within any letter it would also be sensible to inform the employee of the measures you have put in place regarding coronavirus.
What should employers be doing now?
You need to think about some disaster/recovery plan now even though the risk of businesses having to close is low. However there is always a chance if there is a case within your company that Public Health England could order a deep clean or a closure.
Your disaster recovery plan should include things like checking what computer and broadband access computer users have at home should this be needed; checking what phone lines employees have at home; do you have remote access keys for your computer system so that people can access work systems from home; do you have a phone tree or plan of how to contact staff if you have to close and to inform everyone; do HR and line managers know the rules you have about absence and sickness; have you let staff know what is expected of them.
Other things you should do are:-
- Keep abreast of government and ACAS advice on coronavirus, as it develops.
- Have effective and reliable systems for communicating with employees. Ensure you can contact them by telephone or email. You should ensure that there is an emergency communication system in place in the event that normal means of communication cannot be accessed or utilised. Make sure you have up to date personal emails and phone numbers for your employees.
- Circulate guidance encouraging employees to be extra-vigilant with washing their hands, using and disposing of tissues etc. Signs in kitchens and toilets are a good idea.
- Consider having an ‘isolation room’ where an employee who feels ill can go and sit away from other employees and call NHS ‘111’ privately before taking any further necessary action.
- Circulate your sickness policy to employees on how you would deal with the issue of coronavirus and absenteeism so that they are aware of the position. Include details of anything that is different for coronavirus as opposed to normal illness.
For further advice on what your company should be doing in relation to coronavirus, please contact a member of our employment law team.
Tel: 01246 555111