Coronavirus factsheet for employers

Read our coronavirus Q&A to find out how the outbreak could impact your workplace.

BrightHR Team

First published 3rd March 2020. Last updated 30th March 2020 at 4:30pm.

Now that the coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization, you’ve probably got a lot of questions about how it will impact your business and what you can do as an employer. Here we answer some of your complex HR questions…

Q. Several of my employees have requested time off because schools have closed. What are their entitlements if I approve time off?

A. As this is similar to other instances of school closures, the normal rules on unpaid time off for dependants will apply unless you provide greater contractual entitlements. 

If your contract does not provide for pay for time off to look after dependents you may choose to, but don’t have to. There is no set amount of time that an employee is entitled to be absent from work as it depends on the exact nature of the situation and each case will be different. Generally, employees are entitled to take a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency and where possible make alternative arrangements. 

If an employee is unable to make care arrangements in these circumstances you may discuss options with them including the use of annual leave or alternative work arrangements where possible, such as working from home.

Q. One of my employees is returning from an affected area and some of my staff are refusing to come into work as a result. Do I have to give these employees time off work with pay?

A. An employee who refuses to work is technically in breach of the terms and conditions of their contract and isn’t entitled to payment for their time off work.

Employees can’t refuse to work as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. But it’s up to you, the employer, to assess the situation if an employee is returning to work from an affected area and make a decision based on the most recent information available.  

Q. Do I have to accept working from home requests and what do I do if I don’t have the right equipment for my staff?

A.  The current government guidance states that where staff can work from home, they should. So if your workplace is set up as such that it is possible to work from home, you should consider this as it will reduce the risk and spread of coronavirus.

However, employees have no legal right to request to work from home, so ultimately, it is up to you if you do choose to let staff from home; the government accepts that this will not be possible for all businesses.

If you’re considering letting your staff work from home, you’ll need to think about their health & safety. You might need to carry out risk assessments to make sure your employees are safe to work from home and check that you’ve got enough equipment to allow them to do so.

Q. One of my employees has self-isolated after returning from an affected area. Is the employee right to do this?

A. If your employee has returned from an affected area, it’s likely that they’ve been advised not to visit a GP, pharmacy or hospital in case they have the coronavirus. So check with your employee to confirm this and see what they’ve been advised by the NHS.

If your employee has been advised to self-isolate (stay at home) as a precaution only, you should pay them Statutory Sick Pay even if they don’t have any symptoms. 

It has been announced that for companies with fewer than 250 staff, the Government will refund sick pay payments (related to the coronavirus) for two weeks—however, emergency legislation has not been updated to cover this yet. It is anticipated that a further amendment will be made to cover this and make it a legal requirement, but it’s uncertain when this new legislation will take effect from.

Q. An employee is self-isolating to take care of someone with symptoms of the coronavirus, should I still pay them?

A. Anyone who’s followed government guidance to self-isolate because they are caring for someone in the same household as them who has symptoms of the coronavirus, will get Statutory Sick Pay if they meet the other qualifying conditions.

Government guidance states that anyone living with others showing symptoms of coronavirus (whether that be themselves or someone else), then all household members should self-isolate for 14 days, starting from the day the first person in the household became ill.

Q. One of my employees is off sick because of the coronavirus. Does the normal Statutory Sick Pay rules apply?

A. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has announced that the normal Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rules won’t apply to anyone who is off sick because of the coronavirus.

Under normal SSP rules, employees who are off sick must wait three days before the right to SSP kicks in, so they don’t get any pay for these first three days. However, it has been announced that SSP will be paid to employees from the first day of the absence, where the absence is because of the coronavirus. This will apply to any sickness logged from 13th March.

As well as this, emergency legislation has been passed to confirm that a person who is self-isolating in line with Government advice relating to coronavirus, is deemed as being incapable of work and therefore will be entitled to SSP.

Employers with fewer than 250 employees will be able to reclaim SSP for sickness due to COVID-19. This will cover up to 14 days’ SSP per eligible employee where the sickness (or self-isolation) relates to COVID-19. The process for this recovery of SSP is yet to be confirmed.

Q. My employee has plans to travel abroad for personal reasons and I’ve already approved their annual leave, can I stop them from going?

A. As long as there are no travel restrictions in place for the destination they are travelling to, your employee can travel as planned. But you should make sure that your employee is aware of any procedures you have in place and what might happen if travel guidance to and from that destination changes.

While you can justify cancelling business travel, you might put yourself at risk of indirect discrimination claims if you stop employees travelling to a specific location for personal reasons.

Q. I’m worried about my employees not taking their full statutory holiday leave this year because of COVID-19. Is there any government guidance on this?

A. Yes, the government has announced plans to relax holiday carryover laws for the majority of workers from 27th March 2020.

Under new amendments to the Working Time Regulations, workers can now carryover up to four weeks unused annual leave over the next two years, if they can’t take holidays because of the coronavirus.

As a result of this amendment, you should start tracking holiday carryover for your workers immediately. It’s also worth putting together a holiday carryover policy if you haven’t already, so you can update workers on the new rules.

You should communicate these changes to your employees as well so that they’re aware of the update and your company’s expectations for managing requests. Please be aware also that annual leave continues to accrue even if an employee’s laid-off or on furlough.

Q. My employee is suffering from the symptoms of coronavirus. What should I do?

A. As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees. So if you notice that someone appears to be unwell, discuss this with them privately and check whether they have sought medical advice or are aware of the symptoms of coronavirus and guidance published relating to self-isolation.

If not, they should be made aware of the symptoms and encouraged to review and follow government guidance. Under current guidance, employees are not required to contact NHS 111 unless they feel they cannot cope with their symptoms at home, or symptoms worsen, or the symptoms do not get better after 7 days.

Q. My business is at risk of exposure to coronavirus. If I decide to temporarily close my business, do I still need to pay my staff?

A. If there’s a real risk of exposure to coronavirus, you might decide to temporarily close down your business. In this case, you might be able to lay off staff without pay if you have a specific term in your employee contracts, so check this first.

If your business is temporarily closed and employees are laid off without pay, staff with at least one month’s service are entitled to Statutory Guarantee Pay. This payment is £29 per day for a maximum of five days in any three-month period.

However, if there’s no specific term in your employee contracts that says you can lay off staff without pay, you could try to reach an agreement with your employees to a period of unpaid layoff. 

Q.The government announced financial assistance through the Job Retention Scheme but stated this requires placing employees on furlough. Is this the same as placing employees on layoff?

A. No. Employees placed on layoff (subject to service criteria) are entitled to receive Statutory Guarantee Pay (SGP) at £29 per day for a period of 5 days in a rolling 13 week period, whereas furloughed employees will receive 80% of their wage. The government is offering to cover 80% of furloughed employees’ wages, to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month.

You may top up the employee's wage to 100% but you don't have to. If you do top up so that the employee receives full pay, you are unlikely to be in breach of contract by placing an employee on furlough, provided you handle the situation appropriately.

Designating employees as furloughed is subject to existing employment law and should you decide not to top up to full pay, unless there is an appropriate clause within their employment contract, is subject to negotiation and agreement.

Q. Which of my employees can be furloughed?

A. Any employee can be furloughed, as long as they are on PAYE and were hired before 28th February. Employees can be on any type of contract, whether that be part-time, full time, employed agency, zero hours, or variable hours.

Employees currently on sick leave or self-isolating should get Statutory Sick Pay, but can be furloughed after this. You can also furlough employees who are shielding in line with public health guidance.

It is worth remembering that any employees made redundant after 28 February 2020 can be re-employed and place on furlough instead.

Q. Can I furlough my employee if they have another job?

A. If your employee currently has more than one employer, they can be put on furlough by one employer and continue to work for another, if it is permitted within their employment contract.

If they are put on furlough by more than one employer, they will receive separate payments from each employer. The 80% of their normal wage up to a £2,500 monthly cap applies to each job.

Q. Is it possible to furlough employees who are on short-time working? So for example, they are able to work 2 days per week covered by the business and have the Government contribute 80% to the other 3?

A. Furlough requires that the employee does no work and therefore short-time working could not continue. You could consider whether work patterns could be reorganised through discussion with employees, to allow some of those that have been on short-time working to go back to full hours whilst others are furloughed.

It is important to remember that government guidance is constantly changing when it comes to new emergency legislation—including Furlough and the Job Retention Scheme—so it’s a good idea to seek employment law advice before contacting staff.

Q. Can I make my employees use hand sanitiser?

A. You can’t force your employees to use hand sanitiser. But it is good practice to promote good hygiene within your workplace.

So make sure that hand sanitisers are readily available to your staff and encourage them to wash their hands regularly.

Q. Some of my employees want to wear masks in the workplace. Should I let them?

A. According to Government recommendations, employees do not need to wear facemasks to protect themselves against the virus. So you’re under no obligation to let your employees wear them.

Instead, the Government suggests that you make employees aware of good hygiene practices (such as regularly washing hands) and continue to update staff on the current state of the coronavirus.

A final thought…

It’s important to think carefully about any situation linked with the coronavirus outbreak before you make any decisions that impact your staff.

As an employer, you may risk breach of claims if your employees are laid off without pay, or if employees are laid off with pay but for longer periods than can be justified.

In all cases, you should talk to your staff first before making a decision. This will give them time to make any appropriate arrangements and should make the process run more smoothly. If you have any doubts, seek employment law advice.

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