Coronavirus: Advice for Employers

Image of a coronavirus
This article has been updated to reflect the current situation with furlough deadlines and returning to work.

There have been some important updates to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (others known as the ‘furlough scheme’).

You cannot join the furlough scheme after 30th June 2020

From 1st of July, no employer will be able to start using the furlough scheme for the first time. It will remain in place only for existing users of the scheme. You won’t be able to furlough any additional workers, and you won’t be able to claim for more workers than are already furloughed as of 1st July.

You can no longer furlough a worker for the first time.

Because a worker needs to have been on furlough for at least 3 weeks prior to the 30th June deadline, the last chance for putting an employee on furlough for the first time was on 10th June 2020. Any employee that you have not previously furloughed can no longer be put on furlough!

This article gives guidance for employers on how to adapt to the coronavirus crisis while continuing (or returning to) 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.

Keep reading or selection an area of interest:

  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. Working from home instead of the workplace
  7. If you cannot pay your workers (furlough)

General coronavirus advice

For employers that are able to continue having staff come in to the workplace, or for those planning the return to work of their employees, 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.

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. However, on 4th March 2020, the government introduced emergency legislation that allows employees to get Statutory Sick Pay from the first day instead.

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 14 days if they have symptoms, or if they have been advised to do so by the NHS ‘contact tracing’ scheme.

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.

Some staff may be afraid to return to work because of COVID-19. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 does enable an employee to refuse to attend work if they have a reasonable belief that they would be in “clear and imminent danger”. Therefore, employers should take the following steps:

  1. Perform a risk assessment to determine what the risks are and what precautions should be taken (e.g. appropriate use of Personal Protective Equipment – PPE)
  2. Implement measures to minimise the risks and safeguard employees as much as possible
  3. Talk to individuals reluctant to work. Reassure them about the steps taken and determine whether their remaining fears are reasonable.

Staff who are in a vulnerable group due to age or underlying medical conditions may have a reasonable concern. Consider whether retaining them on furlough is an option, or alternatively look at having them take any accrued but unused holiday, or even unpaid leave.

Ultimately, if an employee still refuses to come to work, then this could be 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.

Working from home instead of 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. In fact, many businesses have had to embrace working from home. Getting the best out of people that are working remotely from home can be a new experience for some managers. We can help you with remote management techniques and any performance related concerns you might have.

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 (often referred to as the “furlough 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.

The amount the government is paying will reduce later this year!

However, from 1st September 2020 this reduces to 70% and the employer will be required to make up the remaining 10%. From 1st October, the government contribution falls to 60% with the employer responsible for the remaining 20%.

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.