Covid-19 FAQ for employers

Claire Moore
Human Resources

With cases of Covid-19 increasing every day we take a look at the steps and measures that should be taken by employers in the midst of this pandemic.

This FAQ blog provides guidance that is up to date as of the date of publication, however the guidance provided by the Government/NHS will change as the situation evolves. Employers should keep themselves up to date via official Government and NHS sources.

What can I do to help protect my employees from Covid-19?

You should keep your workforce up to date on the current advice being provided by the NHS as well as the measures you are taking as a business. This includes ensuring that your employees are aware of the symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on sickness policies and processes in place.
Encourage employees to wash their hands regularly and provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff. The NHS have downloadable posters which you can display in your work place.

You should also reconsider any overseas business travel and request that employees make you aware if they are planning to visit affected areas.

What should an employee do if they are showing symptoms of Covid-19 or have been in contact with a confirmed case?

Employees should follow NHS advice, and where required, self-isolate for the required time depending on their situation.

At present the guidelines are:

• if employees have symptoms (a high temperature or a new, continuous cough) they should stay at home for 7 days
• if employees live with other people, they should stay at home for 14 days from the day the first person got

Employees should seek guidance from the online NHS 111 service. If they cannot self-manage their symptoms at home, their condition gets worse or symptoms do not get better after 7 days then they should call NHS 111 if they cannot get advice online. Throughout this period they should keep you up to date as per your sickness absence policy and procedure.

What happens if an employee is advised to self-isolate?

If an employee is required to self-isolate (on the advice of the Government, NHS 111 or a medical professional) they should stay at home and should follow the usual sickness absence notification process.

ACAS guidelines for self-isolation state that best practice would be to follow your standard procedure with regards to sick pay (including any Company sick pay scheme in place). However, temporary changes to the Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rules means that employees are entitled to SSP from day one for those who are following medical/government advice to self-isolate due to Covid 19.

What happens if an employee cannot send in a fit note?

Employees can self-certify absences of up to seven days. Where an employee who is absent for more than seven days advises that it is due to self-isolation under official guidance, you should take all reasonable steps to confirm the sickness absence, this could include regular telephone contact with the employee, and asking them to confirm what medical advice they have received and followed. You need to be flexible on what evidence you require from employees in this situation. You could ask them to follow up any telephone conversations with an email to confirm the medical advice they have received or the government guidance they are following so you have this on record, or make a note of any conversations to place on employees’ files.

The important thing is that you are reasonably satisfied they are genuinely off ill (or self-isolating under official guidance or due to symptoms) and therefore qualify for SSP.

What if an employee can work from home?

If an employee can work from home whilst they are self isolating under official guidance then any time worked should be paid as normal and then any other time should be taken as sickness absence.

Where an employee is staying at home as a precautionary measure, because they fall in to a vulnerable category (over 70 years old, pregnant, ongoing medical condition) then they should again, be paid for any work they carry out but any other time not worked during this period should be taken as holiday/time off in lieu or unpaid leave.

What if an employee wishes to come to work despite showing symptoms or being advised to self-isolate?

If an employee shows symptoms, lives with someone with suspected Covid 19 symptoms, or has been advised by the NHS to self-isolate, they will be required to not attend work.

Should employees be concerned regarding the financial impact by only receiving SSP then they could look to take the period of leave as annual leave.

What if I tell someone to go home from work who does not have symptoms?

If you enforce that an employee who does not have symptoms or has not been advised to self-isolate does not come in to work, it may be considered suspension and they would be entitled to full pay.

It is understandable that other employees can become very unsettled at the thought of a colleague having Covid 19 because they may have a common cold or have travelled back from an affected area. However, you need to be mindful about how you communicate with individuals and the instructions you provide to ensure you are not liable to provide full pay for any period away from the office.

What if an employee needs time off work to look after someone?

Employees are entitled to time off work to help a 'dependant' in an unexpected event. This would include situations such as an employee needing to look after or arrange childcare for because of school closures, or to help a dependant if they're sick, or need to go into isolation or hospital. There is no statutory right to pay for this time off, unless this is detailed within the contract or workplace policy.

Time of for dependents would usually only be for a day or so whilst arrangements were put in place to organise long term childcare, if school closures take place it would be advisable in the circumstances to be flexible with this and discuss circumstances further with the employee. The employee could also request leave in line with the parental leave policy, which would be unpaid.

What happens if self-isolation is enforced for the over 70s, pregnant women and those with ongoing medical conditions?

At present, these groups are being told to follow social distancing practices.

Employees in these vulnerable groups may state that they do not wish to follow this guidance. The guidance is put in place to protect at risk groups, if the employee decides they wish to continue working it is at their own risk as the measure is being put in place for their protection.

If self-isolation becomes official government/NHS guidance then it is likely the SSP rules will be applicable and this should be explained to employees in these affected groups.

What if an employee does not want to go to work?

Some employees may express that they do not want to attend work if they are afraid of catching coronavirus, you should listen to any concerns employees may have.

If there are genuine concerns, you should try to resolve these where possible, for example, you could offer flexible working arrangements (e.g working from home) or arrange for employees to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave.

Will the business need to close if an employee is suspected to have Covid-19?

The business does not necessarily have to close. The local Public Health England protection team will get in contact should any cases be confirmed and discuss the case, conduct a risk assessment and provide advice on actions/precautions to take as a result. This could include arranging a deep clean of the area where the affected employees works, redeploying staff elsewhere, etc.

What happens if I need to reduce employees’ hours of work due to a downturn in business?

You could place them on short time working to temporarily reduce their hours of work if there is a clause in the contract of employment allowing you to do so.

If no clause is in place, then you will need to consult with employees with a view to obtaining their consent to the proposed short time working measures. You could explain that this measure is being taken in hope to avoid potential redundancy situations from arising.

Employees should be provided with written details of the arrangement and expected timescales, signing the letter should they consent to the changes.

What happens if I need to close my business temporarily and lay staff off?

If your business is forced to close due to coronavirus then you should check your contract of employment to see if it includes a layoff clause providing you with the right to lay employees off with no pay. If no lay off clause is included then employees would be entitled to full pay during the period of closure unless you could obtain their agreement to implement an unpaid lay off period with a view to keeping everyone employed until the business can re-open again.

Employees should be provided with written details of the lay off and expected timescale signing the letter should they consent to the lay off.

What pay are employees entitled to when they are on short time working or laid off?

Employees are entitled to their normal pay for any work they carry out during these periods (unless you have agreed a reduced rate of pay with employees as part of the contract or consultation on short time working/lay off period).

Assuming the contract entitles you to provide no pay, or you have agreed this with employees as part of the consultation, then employees will receive no pay for any days they are laid off for or any time they do not work due to short time working arrangements.

For any full days where employees are not provided with any work, they will be entitled to a statutory guarantee payment. At present the maximum an employee will receive is £29 a day (increasing to £30 from 6 April 2020) for 5 days in any 3-month period. If an employee usually earns less than £29 a day they will receive their normal daily rate.
The employer must pay statutory guarantee payments and failure to pay them is an unlawful deduction from wages for which employees can make a claim in the tribunal. These payments cannot be claimed back from the government.
How long can I have employees on short time working, or lay them off, for?

There is no limit to how long staff can be placed on short time working or be laid off for, however they could apply for a redundancy payment from you if the following apply:

• the arrangement has been in place for 4 weeks in a row or 6 weeks in a 13-week period
• employees are receiving less than 50% of their normal pay

Employees would have to provide written notice that they intend to claim the redundancy payment and you would be required to provide a written counter notice within 7 days to contest the claim.

The process around this is complex so it would be important to obtain advice should an employee make a written request for a redundancy payment.

What happens if I have to close my business down permanently?

If your business has to close down permanently then you will make employees redundant and will need to follow a redundancy process.

You have an obligation to consult with employees as part of this process and if you propose to make 20 or more employees redundant then you will need to ensure you collectively consult with affected employees.

Statutory redundancy pay must be paid for those who are entitled to it as well as notice pay, outstanding holiday entitlement and any other payments due under the contract of employment.  

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