It is fair to say Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has businesses in all sectors and of all sizes across the UK struggling to work out how best to protect their interests and those of their employees. As recently as December 2019, Coronavirus hardly registered as a threat; fast-forward only a few weeks, and the World Health Organisation has now declared a global pandemic.
For UK SMEs, the risks posed by COVID-19 need to be carefully assessed and measures put in place to provide as much business continuity as possible. In this article, we will outline some of the key considerations your business could make to prepare for Coronavirus.
Managing employee sick pay
Many employees will be unsure if they will be paid in the event they have to self-isolate or if they are required to stay at home. Where they contract the virus the Government has now confirmed that statutory sick pay (SSP) will be available from day one for those self-isolating. SSP is normally only available after four days of sickness.
It is recommended that all of your employees are advised how your organisation’s sickness pay policy will work in relation to Coronavirus, covering each of the likely scenarios, i.e. what will happen if they:
- self-isolate because they have the virus
- self-isolate but are asymptomatic
- told to work from home
- told not to come to work to prevent virus spread, but they cannot work from home due to the nature of their role
We are moving into uncharted territory for many organisations and now may be the time to review policies and staff contracts to consider the impact of enforced isolation.
Working from Home
Employers may be receiving several requests to work from home, including from individuals whose roles are not suitable or amenable to home working. Under The Flexible Working Regulations 2014, employers must consider any such request, however they are not legally obliged to agree to such arrangements.
Organisations are increasingly better set up to enable home working and in cases where self isolation is precautionary and the worker is able to work, it makes sense to allow it. In the absence of Government guidance at this stage, each case will need to be decided on its merits and whether the role can be adapted for homeworking.
Caring for children and family members
It is possible that schools and colleges may close putting additional strain on families who need to remain at home to look after children. There are no mandatory rules on this. Businesses may have to use their discretion and put in place a clear policy to explain to employees what will happen if they are:
- looking after children due to school closures– will they be paid, and will they be expected to work?
- caring for a loved one (and have to self-isolate for this reason) – will they have a statutory right to time off to care for dependents (unpaid)? What is the company’s policy on time off to care for dependents and will this time be paid?
Employees may ask for emergency time off in such a situation. The employer would have to grant this but would be under no obligation to pay the employee. The likelihood is that provided they can do so, employees will either work from home or at the employer’s discretion take the time off as holiday which in most cases should be paid.
More about Coronavirus
Guarding against employee discrimination
In a highly fluid situation such as the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to ensure that any workplace policies introduced or changed must be applied consistently and fairly. As such, employers must be particularly alert to the risk of discrimination impacting certain nationalities, ages, races, ethnicities or disabilities. Employers should make sure they are always taking into account employment contract obligations, conducting themselves in a way which does not breach the duty of trust between employee and employer.
When putting in place working practices, remember to consider any adjustments required for employees with an underlying health condition (e.g. an employee with decreased lung capacity may be legally entitled to have reasonable adjustments made under the Equality Act).
You should also remind staff of the behaviour expected of them; treating employees of certain nationalities differently or making jokes related to Coronavirus could expose the company to discrimination claims. Employers must take steps to ensure that no customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.
Data protection considerations
When releasing any updates within your business on the health of an employee, contractor, or any other individual, it is essential to remember not to disclose personal health information. Doing so may be tantamount to a breach of an individual’s data protection rights as health information constitutes a ‘special category’ of data.
Business contingency planning
All businesses should now be reviewing the potential impact of Coronavirus on their ability to meet client contractual obligations, especially given that many of your employees may be unable to work. Plans should also be put in place for any longer-term impact on businesses. Also consider whether individual employment contracts or commercial contracts with clients need to be addressed.
Planning should also be put in place in the event that due to the business impact of Coronavirus and reduced demand for products and services, employee numbers must be reduced. It is advisable to seek pre-emptive legal advice as to your position if a temporary closure or short-term working becomes necessary. Any proposals to permanently reduce staff may require consultation and individual employment rights being addressed if legal claims and potential employee relations issues are to be averted.
Ensuring your business remains up to date
Keeping up to date with the latest developments and advice will be key over the coming weeks and months, especially using information from trusted and highly authoritative sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), UK Government, NHS, and ACAS. It is recommended that employers regularly update all relevant workplace policies and procedures in light of the latest official guidance. Remember, there are many myths circulating regarding Coronavirus, hence it is important to only cite verified and trustworthy information sources. As policies and procedures are updated, it will be important to ensure all employees are kept up to date with any key changes made.
While the worst-case scenario for UK SME’s, as a result of Coronavirus, may never happen, such an outcome should be planned for in the same manner as any other serious business risk. At this stage, effective risk management, planning, and communication are vital to protecting the interests of your business and its valued staff members. If you have any questions about the issues discussed, please do get in touch with us and receive a free 15-minute phone consultation with one of our expert lawyers.
All information is correct as of 12 March 2020.
Keep up to date with the latest UK government guidance for businesses and employees at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-employees-employers-and-businesses