Coronavirus: Advice for Employers

Image of a coronavirus
This article has been updated to reflect current guidance on social distancing and putting workers on ‘furlough’.

This article gives guidance for employers on how to deal with coronavirus issues at work. We will look at how to handle staff absences due to illness, self-isolation or quarantine. We’ll also cover how to manage employee fears and what to do if someone gets ill at work. Finally, we will give you advice on how to put workers on ‘furlough’ if your business is financially impacted and you are unable to pay them.

In this article, we will cover:

  1. General coronavirus advice
  2. Sick pay & sick leave
  3. Time off to look after others
  4. If employees refuse to go to work
  5. If someone gets sick at work
  6. Closing down the workplace
  7. If you cannot pay your workers (furlough)

General coronavirus advice

The official name for the current coronavirus illness in circulation is COVID-19. Many employers are unsure how to deal with employee concerns or what to do if someone refuses to come to work.

First, we want to share some best practices that will help you protect and reassure your staff.

  • Keep your staff updated on what you’re doing to reduce risk
  • Make sure you have hand washing facilities with hot water and soap
  • Observe social distancing rules and keep staff 2 metres (7 feet) apart
  • Restrict business journeys to absolutely essential travel only
  • Ensure managers know how to spot symptoms and what the sickness reporting and pay policies are
  • Make sure you have up-to-date contact numbers and emergency contact details for your staff

You want to avoid any discrimination. Be careful not to treat anyone differently because their race or ethnicity appears related to a coronavirus hot spot.

Sick pay & sick leave

In general, workers who are ill with COVID-19 are covered by your usual policies on sick pay and sick leave.

Your staff should still let you know as soon as possible if they are sick and unable to come to work. Because some people are being asked to ‘self-isolate’ for 7 to 14 days, they might be unable to get a ‘sick note’ from their doctor straight away. Therefore, you should be a little flexible on any immediate demands for evidence.

On March 4th, the government announced emergency legislation to allow employees to get Statutory Sick Pay from the first day, rather than the usual fourth day.

Normally, eligible employees on sick leave will only get Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from the fourth day of illness, with the first three days being unpaid.

Responding to concerns that this encourages ill workers to remain at work, increasing the risk of spreading coronavirus, the government has introduced emergency legislation to make SSP a day-one entitlement.

Self-isolation or quarantine

What happens if someone says they cannot come to work because they are ‘self-isolating’ due to the coronavirus?

The official guidance is that people should stay at home and ‘self-isolate’ for 7 days if they have symptoms – or 14 days if another member of their household has symptoms.

There are many travel restrictions in place around the world. Therefore, some employees may be abroad and unable to travel back to the UK. This could be due to a lack of air travel or quarantine procedures.

If a worker has been advised to self-isolate or is subject to a travel restriction, our advice is to treat it as sick leave and follow your usual policies on sick pay.

Time off to look after others

Sometimes, an employee may need time off in an emergency to look after someone else. This could be a child or immediate relative who depends on them for care. We call this ‘Dependent Leave’ and you should already have a policy for it.

Here are some examples of dependent leave:

  • Looking after a sick child or close family member
  • An accident or medical emergency
  • Looking after a child because their school has closed

All of this applies in a coronavirus situation too. Workers may need to care for a sick dependent or take care of children due to the school closures. This would normally qualify for dependent leave.

There is no statutory right to paid time off for dependent leave. However, your own policy should explain how much, if any, paid time off you allow. Our advice would normally be to treat coronavirus-related requests for dependent leave the same way as any other illness-related request.

Of course, this only applies if the worker hasn’t been placed on furlough, in which case dependent leave wouldn’t apply. Also, employees working from home may be able to balance their work and dependent care anyway, so it may be possible to avoid invoking dependent leave.

If employees refuse to go to work

You must tell your staff to work from home, if it is possible for them to do their role at home. This helps you comply with the UK Government’s guidance on social distancing.

For many businesses there are some roles that cannot be done from home. Therefore, you may have someone who refuses to come to work, afraid of catching the coronavirus. You should listen to their concerns and go over some of the steps you’ve put in place to minimise risk.

If there are genuine concerns, then you should think about how you can address these, such as allowing flexible working hours and minimising the number of people nearby.

Ultimately, if an employee still refuses to come to work, then this is a disciplinary matter. If your business can afford to do without them for a while, you can consider putting them on furlough, or suggest that they take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave. However, if that is not possible, then you can require them to work or face disciplinary action. We recommend that you contact us for advice before taking disciplinary action.

If someone gets sick at work

If your workplace is still open, then it is possible that a member of staff could start displaying symptoms at work. The most common initial symptoms of the coronavirus illness, COVID-19, are:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Headache (sometimes)

These symptoms can be mild and, of course, are common for lots of other conditions unrelated to the coronavirus. It’s important for staff not to panic every time they hear a cough or sneeze! Therefore, if someone reports these symptoms at work, you should consider whether:

  • They recently returned from an area affected by coronavirus, or
  • They live with someone who has (e.g. spouse, parent, child)

If you have good cause for believing they might be suffering from COVID-19, then that person should:

  • keep at least 2 metres (7 feet) away from other people
  • try to remain behind a closed door, such as an office or meeting room
  • avoid touching anything
  • cough or sneeze into a tissue and put it in a bin, or if they do not have tissues, cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow
  • use a separate bathroom from others, if possible
  • use the NHS 111 online service to get advice on what to do next

Your local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team may get in touch with you to do a risk assessment and give you advice on whether you need to temporarily close the workplace.

Closing down the workplace

The UK Government wants businesses to keep operating, but has also directed that some businesses must temporarily close. If your business is still open, then you should be asking staff to work from home, if possible. However, it is a good idea to plan for any temporary workplace closure. For example:

  • Ensuring staff have mobile phones or laptops for working from home temporarily, or
  • Allocating paperwork tasks that can be done at home for staff that don’t use computers

If your staff cannot work from home, you may need to suspend some or all of your business operations during a shutdown. You must still pay your employees during this time, unless their employment contract says otherwise.

You should inform staff as soon as possible if a temporary shutdown is needed. Also, make sure to keep in regular touch with them while the shutdown is in effect.

Obviously, a shutdown can have a financial impact on your business and your ability to pay your staff. The next section explains what you can do if you cannot pay your workers.

If you cannot pay your workers

You may suffer a significant financial impact from a loss of customers, supply chain disruption or having to close your workplace.

If this happens, you may struggle to pay your workers which could force you to make redundancies or put staff on unpaid leave (a lay-off). This would cause serious hardship to impacted workers. The UK Government has introduced a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help protect jobs and worker incomes.

Under this scheme, the government will pay 80% of their gross salary, plus employer’s National Insurance and minimum workplace pension contributions. We’re calling this subsidised leave a ‘furlough’ to differentiate it from a lay-off.

Unless your employment contracts allow it, you must get the employee’s consent before placing them on furlough. Also, if you are not planning to top up the additional 20% of their usual pay, you must also get their consent to the reduced pay. If the employee agrees, you must give them confirmation in writing.

If the employee refuses, then you have other options, for example asking staff to work fewer hours (short time working) or even make some redundancies.

We can help you with this and also provide you with a letter template that you can use. We recommend that you get in touch with us for advice.