Recent weeks have seen unprecedented employee issues hitting nearly every business. With government advice evolving regularly, it is difficult to comprehend the best approach.
Today, we set out the main issues that employers should be aware of, together with the steps they should be taking to look after their employees.
Enforce working from home
Government guidance stipulates that wherever possible, employers allow staff to work from home. Generally, only ‘essential employees’ should be coming into work.
From the perspective of an employer, this will mean agreeing flexible ways of working, ensuring staff have laptops and mobile phones (where necessary) and arranging for paperwork or computer-based tasks to be done by employees from home.
Remember that vulnerable groups, including the over-70, those with certain health conditions and pregnant women, are strongly advised (and should be supported) to stay at home.
You should note that having people working from home may require you to amend the way you comply with GDPR rules – please see our blog on this topic.
We are still seeing employers requiring non-essential employees to travel into work, and not offering work-from-home as an alternative. This is contrary to government guidance.
Even while working from home, employees should be paid in the normal way.
Employers may also consider taking steps to ensure their workers cope better. In particular, recognising that working from home can be difficult for some to adapt to;
- keep in regular contact with your workforce and up to date with your latest business news
- arrange for virtual meetings and get togethers so staff can still feel part of the team
- do your best to ensure the health and mental wellbeing of your staff
What about employees who have to come into work?
If your business is one that requires employees to be on-site, then it is important to be aware of how your obligations towards your employees may have changed.
It is imperative that you consider how best to social distance your employees, even though they are at work. Considering leaving empty desks between people and no gathering in kitchens or breakout rooms.
Businesses should consider bringing in additional hand sanitisers and frequently cleaning and disinfecting workspaces. Employers may wish to erect signs to remind employees to wash their hands more frequently, and for 20 seconds at a time, and to catch coughs and sneezes in tissues.
If a member of staff becomes unwell with a cough or a high temperature, they should be sent home and advised to stay at home to self-isolate and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen.
What about employees who don’t want to come into work, but are not sick?
It is highly advisable to listen to staff concerns about not wanting to come into work. Consider offering additional facilities to staff (such as a parking space, to avoid them using public transport) or allowing them to stay at home and treating this as holiday or unpaid leave.
In normal times, employers are not required to pay employees for not coming into work. Refusing to come into work can also result in employee disciplinary action. However, it is highly advisable that a more pragmatic approach is taken at this time. Government schemes are available to help many businesses through this difficult period.
If your staff have to take time off work to look after a dependent, either because childcare arrangements have ceased, or because a dependent is sick, there is no statutory requirement to pay for this time off. However, some employers may wish to offer this.
What are my sick pay obligations?
For employees that are remaining at home because they have symptoms of Covid-19, they are entitled to statutory sick pay of £94.25 per week, for up to 28 weeks, from their employer. This is now applied from an employee’s first day off sick from work.
If an individual is not eligible for sick pay, because they earn less than £118 per week, they should be advised to consider applying for universal credit and/or contributory employment and support allowance.
Bear in mind that medical evidence of sickness is not required for the first 7 days, and the government strongly advises businesses to use their discretion when considering the need for medical evidence. If medical evidence is required, employees can obtain an isolation note from NHS 111 if they have symptoms of Covid-19.
What do I do if I can’t afford to keep my staff?
The government has brought in the ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ as a financial measure to support businesses and discourage redundancies, by meeting the cost of 80% of the salary (up to £2,500 per month) of employees who would otherwise have been let go.
The scheme runs retrospectively from 1 March 2020, for a period of 3 months, which means that employers will be able to re-employ staff they had already let go.
In order to take advantage of the scheme, businesses are required to designate employees as ‘furloughed workers’ which, although not a technical term, means that the employee has been temporarily suspended for a period of time without wages. Employers are required to notify employees of the change and employees are required to agree to it. The employer must then submit information to HMRC through a new online portal (it is still being set up by HMRC).
The scheme is available to all UK employers, in any sector, and employers at their discretion may also ‘top-up’ the payment to employees over and above the 80% of salary.
There are several matters which remain unresolved as part of the scheme, including whether the £2,500 cap is gross, and whether the payments from the government will be considered as a grant or a loan. We await further information from the government and HMRC as to how the scheme will work in practice.
We hope this advice helps inform your obligations as an employer during these turbulent times.
LawBite will continue to issue additional advice on the impact of Covid-19 on businesses.
All information is correct as of 27 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
Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice on which you should rely.
The author of this blog post is Barbara Jamieson. Barbara Jamieson is qualified in Scotland, New York and California, and has worked at top Scottish law firms Maclay Murray and Spens LLP and Brodies LLP. Barbara also spent three years working in-house at investment management firm Martin Currie, advising on financial services and commercial contracts.