Coronavirus in the Workplace – How to Effectively Mitigate the Risks

The coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) has moved beyond solely a risk to health, as it begins to potentially disrupt business operations.

Here, Tina Chander, Partner and Head of the Employment at Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall outlines the issues employers should consider.

 

WORKERS WILL NOW receive statutory sick pay from the first day off work, the government has confirmed, arguing that those who self-isolate in order to protect others, should not be penalised for doing so. Naturally, this has raised more questions about sick-pay and working from home.

Sensible actions

The sensible course of action for employers to take at this stage is to note the advice given by official bodies and ensure that this is shared throughout the workforce.

Guidance on issues such as handwashing and the disposal of tissues should be shared via email, calls or meetings – whichever method works best for your employees.

Setting up an ‘isolation room’ for those suspected of having the virus is important, and if someone exhibits symptoms then they should retreat to the room and call 111 immediately, ideally using their own mobile phone.

Other steps to take include:

  • Ensure that the contact numbers and emergency contact details of all members of staff are up to date
  • Ensure that managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus and how to spot them
  • Disseminate information across management on issues such as sick leave and sick pay and the procedures to follow if an employee develops symptoms of the virus
  • Ensure that facilities for regular and thorough washing of hands are in place, including hot water and soap
  • Provide hand sanitisers and tissues to employees
  • Weigh up the pros and cons of supplying protective face masks to employees who may be working in particularly high-risk scenarios

With handwashing being one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it’s important that organisations encourage employees to do so thoroughly, letting them know that they won’t be penalised for the extra time taken.

It all comes down to good communication, ensuring workers have the information and advice needed to handle the situation as it develops.

What to do if an employee becomes unwell

If an employee shows symptoms of the virus, they should move away from other employees and encouraged to avoid touching any surfaces, making sure to cough or sneeze into a tissue and disposing of it immediately, and use a separate bathroom if one is available.

The employee should call NHS 111 and tell the operator:

  • Their symptoms
  • The name of any country they’ve returned from in the past fortnight

Uncertainty over the seriousness of the virus, the exact nature of the symptoms and concern about the situation regarding issues, such as sick pay may lead to some employees coming to work despite feeling unwell.

If this does happen, then an employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team and they will discuss the details, identify anyone who has been in contact with the employee in question, carry out a risk assessment and outline any precautions which should be taken.

 

Sick Pay

If an employee is off sick with the virus then the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as it is with any other illness. However, the employee is now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of work, not the fourth. The complicating factor surrounding this particular virus is government advice for people returning from high risk areas to self-isolate for 14 days.

The government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate then they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them or contractual sick pay if this is offered by the employer.

Currently, there is no bespoke advice for specific industries, but as the impact of Coronavirus spreads, we may see more advice and contingency plans developing to ensure essential and core services continue to operate.

Working from home

In some cases, employees may be able to work from home while in self-isolation. However, in many cases, if an employee cannot attend their place of work, they will be unable to work.

In some cases, an employer might prefer an employee not to come into work, if they’ve returned from a high-risk area, for example, and in these circumstances the employee should receive their usual pay.

Employees may be reluctant to come into work due to general concerns about the virus, particularly if they belong to a group at higher risk of complications, like those with existing medical conditions or the elderly.

In such cases you should offer flexible solutions such as working from home if possible. Alternatively, although there is no legal obligation to do so, you could offer the time away from work as a holiday or unpaid leave.

Ultimately, there is no obligation on an employer to allow an employee to stay away from work and, if the non-attendance causes issues or extends beyond an emergency precaution, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action.

Time off

There are some scenarios in which an employee may need to take time off work to look after a dependant as a result of the virus, such as children needing care because a school has been closed down. There is no obligation to pay in circumstances such as these, and the decision will be based upon wider workplace policy.

As things stand at present it is still fairly unlikely that any workplaces will have to close as a result of the virus, but it’s a potential risk and organisations should have contingency plans in place including:

  • Making sure that employees will be able to get in touch with the employer and any other members of staff they need to liaise with
  • Ask employees to take mobile, tablets and mobile phones home with them to work from home

It may pay organisations to review any supply contracts they have to understand the implications of their business activities being interrupted by the virus or Government advice, with the position on whether insurance would cover COVID-19 losses remaining unclear.

No time to be divisive

Employers must also take steps to ensure that no members of staff, customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.

It may be appropriate to remind staff that jokes and banter, even if light-hearted, may easily slip over the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.

Employers can avoid liability if they can show they took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent employees behaving in such a manner.

Taking reasonable steps can include having well publicised diversity and harassment policies and training all staff on the issue. Managers in particular must be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviour.

 

About the author: Tina Chander is a partner and head of the Employment team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. She acts for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising in connection with all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.

About the firm: Wright Hassall is a top-ranked firm of solicitors based in Warwickshire, providing legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, debt recovery, employee incentives, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.

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