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COVID-19 Advice: Employers’ Guide To Supporting Employees

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by Startacus Admin

covid 19 employers' guide
As we’re inundated with more and more information about the impact of the spread of coronavirus, it’s inevitable that your employees will be asking questions. Should your employees go to work? Should they be working from home? Are they entitled to sick pay during periods of self-isolation? 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed to the House of Commons that employees in self-isolation should be entitled to sick pay from day one, causing concern for businesses who are now seeing a sharp increase in the level of absences and self-imposed quarantine.

So, what do you need to know as an employer? What do you need to have in place over the coming weeks to quickly adapt to the evolving situation? And at what point do you need to get legal advice?

Experienced employment law solicitors from Harper James Solicitors have put together the following information for businesses to help you get ready for the coming weeks. (You might also want to read their recent article on if coronavirus affect your commercial contracts).

Important note: This article does not constitute formal legal advice. As the current situation is continuously evolving, you should always seek the advice of a solicitor to make sure you comply with your legal obligations as an employer.

What are the new statutory sick pay (SSP) measures brought in by the government?

The government recently produced the Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020. This now means that employees, who have contracted the covid 19 employers' guidevirus or who self-isolate in line with government guidelines or NHS advice, will be entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) from day one instead of day four. From 6 April, SSP will also increase from £94.25 to £95.85 per week.

However, it is only those employees who are unable to work due to contracting the virus or who self-isolate in line with government guidelines or NHS advice that will be entitled to receive SSP pursuant to the Regulations. Those who are instructed by their employer to work from home and who are able to do so should receive their wages as normal.

How is the government supporting businesses?

In light of this situation, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced as part of the budget that, for businesses with less than 250 employees, the cost of providing SSP to an employee due to coronavirus-related absences for up to 14 days will be refunded in full by the government.

These new measures taken by the government are intended to support SMEs who may be experiencing increased financial disruption at this time. It is likely that the Treasury will set up a refund mechanism for employers to reclaim SSP in due course.

Do you still need an employee to give you a sick note?

If one of your employees has to self-isolate, it may not be possible for them to get a sick note from their GP. It is advised that anyone with a cough or temperature should not go to their local GP to avoid further potential spread of the virus. Because of covid 19 employers' guidethese guidelines, you may need to make exceptions to your usual sick pay policy. However, there are new measures being put in place for employees to be able to obtain an alternative to a sick note via the NHS 111 services. More details on this are due to be released imminently.

What if employees can’t work because they have to look after a dependent?

If an employee finds that a dependent needs support in an unexpected emergency, they will be entitled to time off work. This will also apply in instances related to the coronavirus outbreak. For example, if school closures occur and an employee needs to take care of their children, or an employee has to look after an elderly relative who may have contracted the virus, then they may be unable to work.

In this case, employees are allowed a reasonable amount of time off to take care of dependents. However, there is no set time limit for this as it is dependent on the individual situation. You are not obliged to pay employees for this time off unless it is stipulated in their employment contract.

It’s important to note that if a partner, child or relative of your employee has contracted the virus or has a covid 19 employers' guidetemperature or cough, government guidelines recommend that the employee (and their entire household) should self-isolate for 14 days. In this case, they will be entitled to SSP for this period of time.

Following social distancing advice

The government’s advice on social distancing stipulates that you should take reasonable steps to avoid unnecessary contact with other people. This includes, instructing your employees to work from home where possible, avoiding public transport, and avoiding public gatherings.

For employers to follow these guidelines you may want to consider:

  • Instructing employees to work from home where possible
  • Supporting your employees to work more flexibly, potentially changing their start and finish times so that they avoid busy public transport
  • Cancelling meetings and any other public events and instead introducing virtual meetings and conferences in their place

What about business travel?

As an employer you have a statutory duty of care to look after the health, safety and welfare of your employees. Whether they’re in the office or travelling to a meeting, you are required to take reasonable steps to protect them from harm.

Because of this, it’s now important to stop any non-essential business travel. Previously, the government stated that travel to areas where there has been a serious outbreak of COVID-19, or where the government or your insurer has warned against it, should be stopped. But this has recently been stepped up to include all non-essential travel. The government has released and is constantly updating advice on travel to reduce the spread of the virus.

If you don’t comply with guidelines, you could be at risk of a negligence/personal injury or health and safety claim being brought against you, in the instance of an employee contracting coronavirus on a work-related trip. If you go ahead with non-essential business travel, then you could also invalidate your insurance policy.

To prevent any claims being brought against you, cancel non-essential international and domestic trips. This will make sure that you comply with your duty of care as an employer, reducing the risk of your employees contracting the virus.

You should also plan to hold meetings virtually where possible, using video conference technology to keep business momentum going.

Is it likely employers will go to court over the issue?

It’s a possibility. If you fail to follow good working practices such as not allowing employees to stay at home or bringing disciplinary hearings against them for not coming to work, this could lead to a claim being brought against you.

If, however, you act reasonably at this stage and do not put your employees at risk, claims brought against you are unlikely to succeed.

What should you do if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in your office?

You have a duty of care towards your employees. So, as an employer, you should take reasonable steps to protect them, especially those who may be particularly vulnerable or at risk of complications should they contract the virus. You should be cleaning the office regularly, metal door handles especially, and ideally providing staff with the facilities to clean and sanitise their own work stations regularly throughout the day. Given the current situation, it would be rare for an employer to be criticised for doing too much. However, it would be easy to criticise for not doing enough.

Employees should cooperate with any advice that you give them in order to keep your entire team safe. If employees fail to do so or risk their own health or their colleagues’ health, they could be disciplined.

To protect your employees, it’s worth putting together an action plan. This will help you and your management team to remain compliant with your legal obligations as an employer and help you take the necessary steps to prepare and to prevent an outbreak occurring at your place of work.

In preparation of an outbreak:

  • Tell employees there’s a possibility their workplace could close
  • Inform employees of potential symptoms to be aware of
  • Revise and update any HR policies such as: sickness absence, dependent care leave, flexible/home working (for example, you may want to change the requirement to obtain a sick note from a doctor as part of your sickness absence policy)
  • If required, produce a special policy tailored to the situation as a precautionary measure
  • Establish a continuity plan that includes flexible working arrangements where possible
  • Encourage employees to take time off if they present with a temperature or a cough and restate the sick leave policy
  • Appoint one person to communicate this information to your employees 

If an outbreak occurs:

  • Get in touch with your nearest Public Health England centre as soon as possible
  • Allow employees to work from home. If this is not usually commonplace your management team may need to outline their expectations for remote workers, and organise regular communication
  • Contact a hazmat company to expertly clean and disinfect the workplace
  • Set up regular virtual meetings to keep remote workers engaged and involved
  • If necessary, consider unpaid leave or salary reduction as an alternative to termination of employment

Harper JamesIf you need advice on your duty of care as an employer during the next few weeks and months or want support putting together a tailored sickness policy, the employment law specialists at Harper James Solicitors can help. For further legal advice in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, visit the Harper James business support hub.

Important note: This article does not constitute formal legal advice. As the current situation is continuously evolving, you should always seek the advice of a solicitor to make sure you comply with your legal obligations as an employer.


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Published on: 19th March 2020

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