First published 3rd March 2020. Last updated 1st February 2021 at 2pm.
Business and society will remain at Level 5 on the Living with COVID-19 Plan until 5 March.
Here we take a look at some issues employers need to consider as COVID-19 restrictions continue to affect normal trading.
Q. Do I need to give seasonal employees a written contract of employment?
A. Yes, you need to give all employees a 5 Day Statement setting out 5 core terms of employment within five days of their start date and you need to provide a written statement of main terms of employment to all employees within two months of their start date. While you are not obliged to provide a written contract of employment, you are obliged to provide all employees with a certain minimum level of information about the position in writing within the time limits mentioned above.
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. Your employees have no legal right to work from home because of the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, you should ask employees why they want to work from home so you can assess whether they need any additional support.
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 is in self-isolation after returning from overseas. Is the employee right to do this?
A. If your employee has returned from a country that isn’t on the green list, they are required to restrict their movements which includes staying away from work. So check with your employee to confirm where they’ve been.
If your employee needs to self-isolate (stay at home) or go into quarantine but they are not sick, then technically they don’t have a right to payment. But you might decide to treat their time off as sickness and pay them in line with the sickness policy in your contract of employment.
Alternatively, you could agree on a period of annual leave with the employee, to avoid the risk of them returning to work and putting the rest of your team at risk.
For more information on handling annual leave during the crisis, see our blog post here.
Q. Some of my employees have caring responsibilities and need time off, what do I do?
A. You will need to manage each case on an individual basis, as there is no single answer. If your employee can’t come to work because of childcare commitments, you should try to reach an agreement on how their absence will be treated.
Although legally employees have no right to pay if they need time off to arrange childcare, it is important to facilitate employees as much as possible during these unprecedented circumstances. It is also important to keep the lines of communication open when employees are away from the workplace during the school shutdown. Some of the options available to help working parents deal with the school closures are:
- Allow employees to work from home if possible.
- Allow a period of unpaid leave.
- Allow the employee to work the time back at a later date.
- Allow the employee to use annual leave.
- Offer parental leave to qualifying employees.
Q. One of my employees is off sick because of the coronavirus. Do I have to pay employees who are affected by the virus?
A. In general, you are under no obligation to pay employees who miss work through illness.
The Government has amended the qualifying criteria on statutory Illness Benefit in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This is a move to protect the incomes of affected employees and make sure they do not refuse to self-isolate because of pay.
Illness Benefit will rise from €203 per week to €350 per week for affected employees and it will be available from the first day of the employee’s absence, rather than the sixth day.
Employees will not need to have made the minimum number of PRSI contributions, but they’ll need to provide medical certification to qualify for the benefit.
You may choose to top up an employee’s Illness Benefit to maintain their pay at its normal rate but this is totally at your discretion.
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. 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. You also need to have a specific response structure in place to deal with symptomatic employees under the Return to Work Safely Protocol.
Q. My business is at risk after a downturn in trade due to the coronavirus. If I decide to temporarily close my business, do I still need to pay my staff?
A. If your business suffers a downturn in trade due to the pandemic, you might need to temporarily close down your business. When announcing Level 5 restrictions, the government also announced a new COVID-19 Restrictions Support Scheme. If your business qualifies, you could receive up to €5,000 per week in compensation payments if you’ve been forced to close or had your revenue curtailed by the public health restrictions.
When it comes to your employees, you might be able to lay off staff without pay if you have a specific term in your employee contracts, so check this first.
Lay off must be with full pay unless there is a provision within the contract for lay off without pay. However, if there is 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 lay off. Employees are now prohibited from making a redundancy claim during a period of lay off or short time working until 31 March 2021 and this may be extended if the crisis persists.
The government is also asking employers, where possible, to continue to pay workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you are not in a position to keep employees on payroll, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has introduced a new COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment to provide an unemployment benefit to employees who have lost employment due to the downturn in economic activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The payment will be available to new applicants until the end of 2020 and is tied to the employee’s previous earnings.
Employees are encouraged to apply online to comply with social distancing requirements.
Q. What is the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme?
A. As the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) ceased at the end of August, a new Employment Wage Support Scheme (EWSS) is available from 1 July 2020 until April 2021. The EWSS ran in parallel to TWSS until 31 August and has now succeeded the TWSS from 1 September.
The eligibility criteria for EWSS are slightly different. You will need to demonstrate to the satisfaction of Revenue that your turnover or customer orders will decline by 30 per cent during the July to December 2020 period. This is up from the 25% decline required under TWSS.
Under the EWSS employers will receive a flat-rate subsidy of up to €203 per employee per week. The exact amount will depend on the employee’s pre-COVID-19 gross weekly pay.
After putting Level 5 restrictions in place, the Government confirmed that EWSS subsidy rates would be increased as follows:
Gross pay per week
Revised subsidy rates
Less than €151.50
No subsidy applies
€151.50 - €202.99
€203 - €299.99
€300 - €399.99
€400 - €1,462
No subsidy applies
Unlike TWSS, the EWSS subsidy will be available to employers for new and seasonal employees as well as existing employees.
Q. How much do I need to contribute to employee wages under the scheme?
A. The subsidies will be available to both employers that top up employees’ wages and those that don’t. The government does nevertheless encourage all businesses that can maintain their employees’ salaries at their normal level to do so.
Q. Can employees who have been put on short-time working or laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic make a redundancy claim?
A. The government has now forbidden employees who have been laid off or put on short time during the crisis from making redundancy claims until 31 March 2021 (or any extended period).
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.
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 contract 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.
If you’re a BrightAdvice customer, call our employment law helpline. Not a BrightAdvice customer? You can find out more about this service by ringing us on 1800 279 841.