Coronavirus: After the first UK patient death yesterday, Thackray Williams Solicitors offers advice for employers.
In response to the growing threat of Coronavirus (COVID-19), risk averse employers are taking no chances and some offices have been shut down with thousands of employees told to work from home. Many employers are asking us for advice in the wake of the potential crisis and so we have put together a list of our most frequently asked questions, together with our advice, below.
One of my employees has become unwell and has recently come back from an area affected by Coronavirus. What should we do?
If an employee has recently travelled to an affected country, you should consider requesting that the employee works from home or stays away from the workplace on full pay.
In accordance with NHS advice, individuals who start to experience symptoms should self-isolate. If the employee becomes unwell whilst at work, they should go to a room behind a closed door, staying at least 2 metres away from other people. That person should avoid touching anything, use a separate bathroom from others and call 111 for NHS advice (or 999 if their symptoms are life threatening).
Public Health England (PHE) health protection team will get in contact with employers to discuss cases where someone with Coronavirus has come to work. They will want to carry out a risk assessment and identify people who have been in contact with the affected person before they then advise on any actions or precautions to take.
Do I need to close my workplace?
The current advice is that employers are unlikely to need to close their workplace. However, we would recommend that contingency plans are put in place in case it does become necessary to close the workplace temporarily. Do your employees have effective ways to communicate with you and other people they work with should they be asked to work from home? Can employees carry on working with laptops and/or mobiles from home? Can paperwork tasks be arranged for employees who do not work on computers? Have these processes in place in case the threat level in England changes.
Do I need to continue to pay employees…
…during a workplace closure?
Unless there are alternative provisions in your employees’ contracts of employment that say otherwise, you will need to continue to pay your employees if you send them home from the workplace for their own health and safety. This will be the case if you send only a handful of “at risk” employees home, or if you completely close your workplace.
…if the employees are sick?
If an employee does not come into work because they are ill and/or suffering with flu-like symptoms, or if they have been tested positive for Coronavirus, your employees’ usual sick pay entitlements will apply. Unless your contracts of employment provide any enhanced benefits, employees will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, subject to the usual reporting requirements.
…if employees are not sick but are in self-isolation or quarantine?
There is no legal right to pay if someone is not sick but cannot work, but it is good practice for employers to treat such situations as sick leave and follow your usual sick pay policy, otherwise there is a danger that “at risk” employees may come to work because they want to get paid. To avoid further risk of contamination, we are therefore advising employers to continue to pay employees who have been told by a medical expert to self-isolate, have had to go into quarantine, or who are abroad in an affected area and are not allowed to travel back to the UK.
…employees do not want to attend work because of the potential risks of catching the virus?
If your employees’ concerns are genuine, as their employer you are under a duty to protect your employees’ health and safety and so, if possible, you could offer flexible working. However, if following an investigation, you consider the level of risk to be low, you should explain this to your employees and advise that they will need to take any time off as holiday or unpaid leave if they do not wish to attend work.
A continued refusal to attend work in such a scenario could lead to disciplinary action following enforcement of your normal absence reporting procedures.
Employers should take particular care (and if appropriate obtain advice) when dealing with medically vulnerable individuals (such as employees who have a compromised immune system, who are elderly or who are pregnant).
What can we be doing in the workplace?
Employees are on high alert to the risks posed by the potential threat of Coronavirus and so it is important to keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace. We would also advise the following measures are put in place (and updated as necessary):
- Ensure you have everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details.
- Ensure all employees know how to spot symptoms of Coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes in relation to sickness reporting, sick pay and procedures in case someone in the workplace starts showing symptoms.
- Ensure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly.
- Provide hand sanitisers and encourage employees to use them.
- Consider if any planned business travel to affected areas is essential.
- Inform employees that you expect to be informed if any employees have been to one of the affected areas or have been in contact with someone who has.
Do get in touch with a member of Thackray Williams LLP’s Employment Team on 01732 496496, if you wish to discuss this matter in more detail or require any further advice.