Coronavirus: Emergency Volunteering Leave

27th March 2020 Employment

The COVID-19 pandemic is continually changing and the government advice for employers is being updated as the situation develops. New emergency legislation has been introduced to help employers and employees deal with the situation.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 came into force on 25 March. Some sections are not yet in effect and require secondary legislation, but we expect they would be implemented imminently.

Amongst other things, the Act will introduce a new statutory right for workers to take emergency volunteering leave to help support essential health and social care services. But what will this mean for employers in these uncertain times?

Who will be entitled to take emergency volunteering leave?

Workers, regardless of length of service, who have been certified by a local authority, the NHS Commissioning Board or the Department of Health, to act as an emergency volunteer within health or social care are entitled to take emergency volunteering leave.

How do workers take emergency volunteering leave?

In order to take the leave, workers must give their employer’s three working days’ notice and produce the certificate they have received from the appropriate authority confirming they have been approved as an emergency volunteer.

How long can workers take on emergency volunteering leave? 

The leave can be taken in blocks of two, three or four consecutive weeks and workers can only take one period of leave in each “volunteering period”. Initially, there will be one 16-week volunteering period, beginning the day in which the legislation came into force (25 March 2020). Further volunteering periods may be set.

Therefore, within the next 16 weeks, a worker can only take one period of emergency volunteering leave.

Can an employer refuse an employee’s request to take emergency volunteering leave? 

There is no provision for employers to refuse leave, except for businesses that have 10 employees or less.

Do employers still need to pay emergency volunteers?

No, employers are not obligated to pay their employees that take the leave. However, a compensation fund will be established to compensate the volunteers for loss of earnings and travel expenses. It is not yet clear whether there will be a cap on the amount claimed.

With that in mind, the volunteers will still continue to benefit from all other terms and conditions within their employment contracts during the period of leave. The volunteers will have a statutory right to return to the same job they did before they took the leave, on no less favourable terms, this is a similar protection that is available to those employees on maternity and other family leave.

In addition, volunteers will have the right not to be subjected to a detriment or dismissal on the grounds that they have taken emergency volunteering leave.

What does this mean for employers?

With over 750,000 people already signed up to the volunteer scheme, at the time of writing, the most obvious issue for employers will be the impact of volunteers’ absence from the business.

A further consideration is whether the compensation offered by the government will be subject to a cap. If so, some employers may considering topping up a volunteer’s salary.

This note has been prepared by JMW Solicitors LLP and has been provided as a guide to the legal obligations under the legislation and not intended to provide full details of the law referred to.

The notes should not be treated as a substitute for obtaining complete and full legal advice on the law or on the effect of the legislation.

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Charlotte Beeley is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Employment department

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