COVID-19 | Guidance for employers
As the British government continues to pursue measures to ‘flatten the curve’ and try to limit the spread of COVID-19, businesses face an extended period of uncertainty in a constantly evolving scenario. While some sectors will be affected more than others – the hospitality sector in particular has been hit by the social distancing advice – it is unlikely that any organisation will not face some very challenging months ahead.
We have seen an increase in questions from our clients on the impact that this will have on their business and the procedures that they should follow. In this article we seek to address a few common questions, based on current government advice and guidance.
Do employees who have coronavirus or are self-isolating have to be paid?
If you have employees who are self-isolating in line with Public Health England advice – such as those exhibiting symptoms or those who fall into the ‘vulnerable’ category – or are suffering with COVID-19, they will be entitled to be paid in line with your sick pay policy. The government have announced that any employee with COVID-19 will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from day one of any sickness rather than day four.
Where it is not possible for employees to work from home, but the employees choose to stay at home and refuse to come to work, what is the position?
Current government advice is that wherever possible people should work from home, however not every role can be fulfilled from home.
Compromise and discussion are crucial, and the employee may wish to take annual leave or unpaid leave to resolve the issue. If the employee still does not wish to attend work and they are unable to work from home then this can lead to disciplinary action, and as always the reasonableness of the employers actions will be scrutinised by an Employment Tribunal in any claim made as a result of such action.
Are employees entitled to full pay if they have been told not to come into work?
If you have told the employee that they are not to come into work because they are sick or need to self-isolate following Public Health England guidance or are showing symptoms then they would be entitled to statutory sick pay. If they do not fall into either of these categories then they are entitled to full pay unless they agree otherwise.
Do I need to give employees time off to care for a family member or loved one?
Employees are entitled to unpaid time off to care for a dependent. If their dependant has coronavirus than it would be sensible to take a pragmatic approach as they would also need to self-isolate in line with current guidance so would be entitled to statutory sick pay.
What processes do I need to follow for employees working from home?
Current government advice is that employees work from home wherever possible. Employers still have a duty of care to all staff with regards to health and safety although carrying out a full health and safety assessment may not be possible. Most home workers will be carrying out low risk tasks, but consideration should still be given to those risks and an assessment made.
Finally, it would be good practice to create a Home Working Policy with guidance if you do not already have one. This should be easily accessible to all employees.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
What is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme?
It was announced on 21st March that employers will be able to apply to HMRC for a grant to cover the wages of employees who would otherwise have lost their job due to the pandemic.
All UK employers are entitled to apply for the scheme which will allow employers to apply for a grant to reimburse 80% of an employees wage costs up to £2,500 per month. The employer is not required to fund the additional 20% of the wages. Employers are also able to claim employment costs such as pension and NI contributions, but will not be able to claim for any commission or bonuses.
Current guidance states that the government hopes to make the scheme payments available ‘within a matter of weeks’, and we wait for clarity on when these payments will start.
What do I need to do to apply for the Scheme?
Under the scheme, employer must identify any workers whose job may be at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic and inform them that they will be designated as a ‘furloughed worker.’ As this is subject to the standard employment law regulations, the employer must receive consent from the employee unless there is a clause relating to lay-offs in their contract. In reality most are likely to give consent given the unprecedented circumstances.
If furloughed the employee stays on pay-roll and continues to receive whatever salary has been agreed for this period between the employer and employee, but the employee must not carry out any work during this time. The minimum period that an employee can be furloughed for is three weeks, and such employees are able to carry out training or voluntary work over this period providing it does not have lead to revenue generation for the business.
The employer will then need to submit information on furloughed workers to HMRC. HMRC are currently in the process of creating the system for submitting this information and the scheme is set to run for 3 months initially but the Chancellor has been clear that this will be reviewed and extended if necessary.
Are all employees covered by the scheme?
We are yet to receive full guidance on this, but government advice that it will include any employees who are paid through PAYE which will include zero hour contracts. The scheme will also be backdated to 1st March, which will mean that employees who have been made redundant since 1st March can be re-hired and furloughed.
Normal employment law applies in the furlough process, so it is important not to discriminate when deciding who to furlough. Employees currently on sick pay or those who are self-isolating are exempt until they come back to work at which point they will be eligible for furlough again. Full details and current information can be found on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is available on the government’s website.
Help and assistance are also available from the following organisations and links
- The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) is an independent body providing advice for employers and employees. Their guidance on coronavirus is available here: https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus
- NHS has extensive health-related guidance available here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/
- Public Health England provides news, information, and regular updates on coronavirus in addition to guidance for employers, educational and health-related organisations. The information is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/public-health-england
- Public Health Wales: https://phw.nhs.wales/topics/latest-information-on-novel-coronavirus-covid-19/
- Health Protection Scotland: https://www.hps.scot.nhs.uk/a-to-z-of-topics/wuhan-novel-coronavirus/
- Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland: https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/news/covid-19-coronavirus
- HMCTS: Information for users of Courts and Tribunals is available here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-courts-and-tribunals-planning-and-preparation
All businesses are being affected by the coronavirus outbreak – and the government’s actions to limit its spread – in different ways. While we have sought to answer a few of the most common questions, this is by no means an exhaustive list and is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice on specific circumstances
*Disclaimer: While everything has been done to ensure the accuracy of the contents of this article, it is a general guide only. It is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be sought in relation to the particular facts of a given situation. The information is accurate at time of publication, 12.30pm on 30th of March 2020 .