What does COVID-19 mean for employers?

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There’s a lot of uncertainty out there at the moment for businesses in relation to the current COVID-19 epidemic, with new updates and official advice emerging every day, we thought we’d help simplify things for you by creating a full guide for employers.

The last thing you need is more stress at this difficult time, so rest assured we’ll be keeping an eye out for the latest information and updating this post as often as we can. Information is key when it comes to protecting your business in response to mounting uncertainty. 

Government advice dictates the legal considerations your business must take, so it’s important to have a good understanding of how you should manage your employees during the COVID outbreak. 

What are the key points to bear in mind for employers?

  • Employees are bound to a duty of care to their employees, this means they must assess any reasonable risk and act accordingly to protect their workers, contractors and any visitors to site. 
  • In accordance with UK Health and Safety Legislation employers must keep an active review of risks and create policy to mitigate those risks.
  • Employers must communicate these policies with staff and provide appropriate safety measures and training to safeguard employees.

Many businesses in the UK have already begun taking steps to stop the spread of Coronavirus by acting on government advice. 

The way the above guidelines are implemented is of course open to interpretation, and businesses need to carefully ensure that taking out safety measures does not impact their finances detrimentally, especially as the world economy is already seeing fluctuations as a direct result of COVID.

What actions are most employers taking?

Some of these steps may not be appropriate or viable for your business, but they seem to be the common solutions businesses are seeking to implement: 

  • Employees who can work from home effectively should do so, to limit the virus’ ability to spread. Avoiding large volumes of people in close proximity is vital.
  • Employees who can not work from home may need to limit social contact, many businesses are moving desks two metres apart to make it harder to pass on the virus.
  • Vulnerable employees such as those with health conditions, weakened immune system or pregnant employees should be safeguarded as a priority. This may mean working from home, but if this is not possible, a duty of care requires you to suspend the employee on full pay. 
  • It should be communicated to employees that any one who experiences flu-like symptoms, a temperature or a cough should immediately self isolate. The government has already advised they will cover Statutory Sick Pay for two weeks for employees of small businesses.

As an employer, if you haven’t already, you should immediately make it your priority to ensure that workers are equipped to work remotely. This is not currently a legal requirement, but there is a high likelihood that governments will advise premises shut down should the pandemic get any worse. 

Being prepared will limit the potential negative impact on your business.

How should employers manage visitors?

Legally, visitors fall under the same duty of care as your employees as soon as they are on your premises, so you should limit all non-essential visitors.

You should bear in mind that you’re almost in the dark when it comes to visitors to your site, so it’s well worth a quick screening for everyone’s safety. Ask visitors to complete a quick survey when on-site and send out prior advice to any regular visitors or customers.

This advice should clarify that anyone who has visited a high-risk country in the past 14 days, or has had close contact with someone who has, should not visit your business. 

It’s good GDPR practice to immediately destroy any surveys you take from visitors after they have left. 

Creating a COVID-19 policy

It’s good practice to create a COVID policy that you continuously update based on the latest advice given by the government. This is an important piece of centralised information that can help keep everyone in your company on the same page, following the same advice.

It’s especially important to do this if you have multiple sites. 

A good COVID-19 policy will cover:

  • Risk management procedure. Form this based on advice from the NHS.
  • Details of the measures you will take in response to the latest government advice.
  • Clarification of your home-working policies.
  • Guidelines for how the company will deal with visitors, events and meetings to mitigate risk. 

A policy will help you ensure you are taking a proactive attitude towards COVID-19 and are making sufficient steps to safeguard employees. 

This is especially important as failure to minimise risks to employees could lead to legal claims should one of them become sick due to a failure to implement adequate measures.

Legal follow-up is also likely if employers don’t take steps to protect those who are most vulnerable, such as pregnant women. 

Should employers restrict employee travel?

You cannot stop employees from travelling in their spare time to any pre-booked destination, you may however choose to advise and communicate the risks in doing so.

It’s also important to ensure there are regular communications to advise companies to self-isolate on return if the destination is high risk. Legally, you can ask employees to use their holiday entitlement for this, or ask them to take unpaid leave, if they decide to go ahead with risky travel plans that result in self-isolation.

Likewise, if an employee purposefully travels to a high-risk destination with the express intention of being put into isolation afterwards, employers have the right to take disciplinary action. If in doubt, ACAS is a good source of advice on the matter.

If employees need to travel for work-reasons, you should conduct a risk assessment. Cancel any non-essential travel, and ensure you have safeguarded employees from risk if the travel is essential to their role.

How should employers pay those in self-quarantine?

Luckily, government advice is very clear on the issue; Statutory Sick Pay should be paid to employees on self-quarantine, even if they are not displaying symptoms. 

Home working is a possibility if the employee is not too unwell to work.

Ordinarily, employers can request evidence of sickness in the form of a doctor’s note after seven days, but given the strain on the NHS, employers should be lenient and mindful that this may be difficult to enforce. 

The government has also placed the following procedures into play:

  • Employees are entitled to SSP from the first day of their self-quarantine – rather than after the fourth under current legislation.
  • Authorities now have the power to detain people who have the virus, or who are suspected of having the virus and place them under restriction.
  • Employers with less than 250 employees will be reimbursed by the government for SSP for the first 14 days of an employee’s absence.

If you introduce your own company rules for self-quarantine that go beyond the government’s official advice you are liable to cover the expense of doing so.

How to deal with special circumstances

COVID-19 will undoubtedly cause problems even for those who do not contract the virus – due to closures, many people will have increased childcare issues and may need to care for relatives who are unwell.

There is no legal obligation to make allowances for employees to take time off under these circumstances, but given the scale of the impact of COVID, it is recommended that employers are lenient. 

Where reasonable, employers may offer unpaid leave or holiday entitlement as an option here. You could also consider being flexible with working hours, so employees can work during hours where they do not have childcare concerns.

What if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19?

If an employee displays symptoms at work, ACAS advises that they are kept a minimum of two metres from other workers. Employers should then consult NHS 111.

Currently official advice does not recommend shutting the whole workplace if a worker is diagnosed or displays symptoms. You should contact your local health authority for further advice in this situation.

COVID and GDPR

You are under no obligation to tell your staff if a member of your workforce is diagnosed with Coronavirus, but it is recommended to do so. Hiding important matters of public health can be perceived as underhanded. 

Although you can tell employees someone has been diagnosed, you should ensure you do not reveal their identity for privacy issues. 

Ensure employees are also aware of the implications of revealing the personal information of anyone diagnosed with COVID.

What if COVID-19 causes a downturn in business

The answer to this question is very much dependent on your employment contracts. You may have already outlined that your company is entitled to lay off staff temporarily, or reduce working hours, if it needs to for financial reasons.

If this is the case, it’s good practice to keep employees informed as this develops, so they can adequately prepare.

If there is no exception in your contracts, you will still be liable to pay employees.

You may also consider asking your employees to take voluntary unpaid leave, but they may turn this down in accordance with their contract. 

We will endeavour to keep this article updated to the best of our knowledge.

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