Coronavirus factsheet for employers
Read our coronavirus Q&A to find out how the outbreak could impact your workplace.
First published 3rd March 2020. Last updated 26th 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. 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?
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. 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 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 Department of Public Health.
If your employee has been told 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.
Q. Some of my employees have children and have asked for time off due to school closures, 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:
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 €305 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.
If not, they should be encouraged to call the Department of Public Health on 1850 24 1850 and follow company procedures for absence reporting in the event that they are told to stay at home.
Any colleagues who have had contact with the symptomatic employee should likewise be made aware of the symptoms and advised to call the Department of Public Health on 1850 24 1850 and to follow the public health advice.
The HSE has requested that the emergency numbers 112 and 999 should be reserved for medical emergencies only at all times.
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. 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.
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 31st May 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. See the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme question below for more details on this. If you have already registered for the refund scheme operated by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, your business will be automatically registered for the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.
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 is paid at a flat rate payment of €350 per week and will be paid as long as the crisis lasts.
Employees are encouraged to apply online to comply with social distancing requirements. Application forms are downloadable here and should be submitted by post. Employees can apply for the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment in the following ways:
1) Download the application form, insert the relevant details and post it to the Department at Free Post, PO BOX 12896, Dublin 1
2) Employees with a Public Services Card can apply for income supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection through the online portal www.MyWelfare.ie
3) Employees can phone the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on 1890 800 024 or 01 2481398.
Q. What is the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme?
A. The Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme is a government initiative to support businesses through the coronavirus pandemic. The scheme aims to avoid large-scale redundancies by encouraging businesses to keep as many employees as possible on payroll.
The Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme replaces the COVID-19 Pandemic Refund Scheme. If your business has already used this refund scheme, you will automatically be registered for the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and Revenue will contact you.
Q. Can my business and employees benefit from the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme?
A. Because the legislation is still being drafted, there may be changes to guidance. But, as it stands, the scheme will be available to employers who can demonstrate that they have been attempting to retain and pay staff but are unable to do so because their turnover has been so badly affected by the crisis.
The Revenue will administer the scheme and have set out the following criteria. To qualify, employers must:
- Be experiencing significant negative economic disruption due to COVID-19.
- Be able to demonstrate, to the satisfaction of Revenue, a minimum of a 25% decline in turnover.
- Be unable to pay normal wages and normal outgoings fully.
- Retain their employees on the payroll.
Employees must also have been on the payroll for the last PAYE period in February to qualify. The eligibility criteria remain subject to any subsequent Revenue guidelines and may change.
Q. How much of staff salaries are paid through the scheme?
A. Between now and the beginning of April, the state will co-fund 70% of salaries up to a maximum €410 per week. From April 1st, the scheme looks set to be split into classes:
- For employees earning up to €586 per week, the state subsidy is 70% or €410 per week.
- For employees earning between €586 and €960 per week, the state subsidy is to be determined by the Minister for Finance.
- For employees earning more than €960 per week, no subsidy will be payable.
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 31st May 2020 (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.
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 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.