Covid-19 – 5 common questions answered for employers

27th February 2020 Employment

There is a lot of conflicting information and advice on Covid-19, which is hugely unhelpful and confusing for both businesses and employees. In the midst of all the confusion, JMW have answered 5 common queries to assist employers.

1. How do I prepare?

For employers who have not yet been affected by Covid-19, HR departments should be using this time to plan ahead in the event that some of their workforce are required to self-quarantine.

This should include reviewing health and safety policies, ensuring effective communication with employees is established, and putting in place a contingency plan should there be a high number of employees that are absent. It would also be sensible for employers to remind themselves of their sickness absence procedures. 

2. Should I allow home working?

Under the Health and Safety Act 1974 businesses have a duty to provide a safe workplace, so employers must consider how best to balance protecting employees, whilst maintaining business operations.

In some sectors it may be possible for employees to work remotely from home. We advise accommodating this temporary flexible working arrangement wherever possible, as this reduces disruption and loss of productivity to the business. Some businesses are already taking a proactive approach and splitting their departments between a core group working in the office and the rest of the team working at home to mitigate the risks, and ensuring continuity of service.

3. What should I pay employees who have self-quarantined?

The Health Minister has announced that employees who self-quarantine are classed as sick, and are therefore entitled to be treated pursuant to their company’s sickness policy. Although it is out of the employee’s control as to whether they have to self-quarantine or not, employers have businesses to run and are not expected, or obliged, to award sickness benefits over and above what is contained in their sickness policy. Some employers may operate occupational schemes with better terms over and above SSP. However, this is not always the case and many employees will be forced to manage on basic SSP, which is just £94.25 a week.

Given the significant public need a 14-day self-quarantine for flu symptoms is likely to create, it is yet to be seen whether the Government will “top-up” the wages of those worst hit.

4. What do I do if an employee’s child has been sent home from school?

The Public Health Agency has not currently advised that all schools will be shut as a blanket rule. However, some children are being sent home to self-quarantine after returning from school trips to Italy.

Employees have a statutory right to ‘reasonable’ unpaid time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependent. A dependent is defined as a spouse, civil partner, child or parent (but not grandparent) of the employee, or a person who lives in the same household as the employee. A common example of this in day-to-day life is where a childminder is sick and a parent is required to care for their child. ‘Reasonable’ is not defined, but ordinarily this period may be shorter if a parent has the option of engaging an alternative childminder. However, in the context of Covid-19, the interpretation of ‘reasonable’ is likely to be more flexible as most childminders are likely tol be unwilling to care for a child who potentially has the virus!

5. What do I do if I believe an employee is self-quarantining without due cause?

An employee should only self-quarantine if they have returned from a high risk area identified by the Government, or if they are demonstrating the symptoms of Covid-19. If you suspect that an employee has self-quarantined without due cause, you can investigate and deal with this under your disciplinary procedure.

Moving forward, it is clear that both businesses and employees need unambiguous, joined-up advice from the Government and UK health agencies to assist with the challenges Covid-19 is presenting.

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Paul Chamberlain is a Partner and Head of Department located in Manchesterin our Employment department

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