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 12th August 2020 at 3pm.

For information on getting back to work, read our Back to work factsheet for employers.

As the impact of the coronavirus outbreak continues to be felt, you may have 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. 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. 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 17th September 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 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.

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. The scheme is available to all private-sector 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. The state will co-fund 70% of salaries up to a maximum of €410 per week. On 15 April, the Minister for Finance updated the scheme to correct an anomaly in the scheme whereby some low paid workers were better off claiming a social welfare benefit rather than remaining on payroll.

The new breakdown is as follows:

Employees with net weekly pay less than €586 (€38,000 per annum)

For employees with previous average net pay of up to €412 per week (equivalent to almost €24,400) the wage subsidy will be increased from 70% to 85% of their previous net weekly pay.

For employees with previous average net pay of between €412 and €500 per week (equivalent to €24,400-€31,000 per annum), the subsidy will be up to €350 per week.

Employees whose previous average net pay was between €500 and €586 per week (equivalent to €31,000-€38,000 per annum) will continue to receive a subsidy of up to 70% of previous net income, up to a maximum of €410 per week.

Employees with net weekly pay in excess of €586 (€38,000 per annum)

For employees with previous net pay in excess of €586 per week (equivalent to €38,000), the maximum subsidy payable remains €350 per week.

Minister Donohoe also announced that the wage subsidy is available to employees whose average pre-COVID-19 salary was greater than €76,000 gross, and whose net post-COVID salary has fallen below €960 per week. The arrangements applicable to gross incomes in excess of €38,000 will apply in such circumstances.

Employees with a net income of more than €960 per week have no entitlement to the subsidy.

The changes outlined above will apply for payroll with a pay date on or after 4 May and received by the Revenue Commissioners on or after that date (no back-dating of the increased subsidy will apply).

Q. What is the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme then?

A. As the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) will cease at the end of August, a new Employment Wage Support Scheme (EWSS) will be available from 1 July 2020 until April 2021. The EWSS will first run in parallel to TWSS from 31 July and will then succeed the TWSS from 1 September.

The eligibility criteria 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.

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 refunds 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 17th September 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.

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.