Protecting your workforce from coronavirus

Tina Chander, head of the employment team at Midlands law firm Wright Hassall, discusses what employers can do to help protect their workforce.

While the coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) has raised some serious health concerns, the impact the spread is having on global stock markets and business operations is growing worse.

To help contain the virus, the government recently confirmed that statutory sick pay will now apply from the first day off work, not the fourth, arguing that sick employees should not be penalised for self-isolating. Understandably, this decision has raised more questions about sick pay and working from home.

As an employer, it’s your duty to take on board the official advice and share it with your employees, whether that’s via emails or team meetings.

It may also be wise to designate an ‘isolation room’, where sick employees can retire to contact 111 for further medical advice.

Other steps to take include:

Update the contact numbers and emergency contact details of employees.

Ensure that managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus.

Disseminate information across management on issues such as sick leave and sick pay.

Ensure that facilities for regular and thorough washing of hands are in place.

Dispense hand sanitisers and tissues to employees.

Given the advice around hand-washing in particular, and the length of time suggested to do it properly (two happy birthdays), organisations should advise all their employees to wash their hands thoroughly and let them know they will not be penalised for the extra time taken.

If an employee exhibits the symptoms of the virus, they should be removed from the proximity of other employees, placed in the designated isolation room and encouraged to follow precautions such as avoiding touching any surfaces, coughing or sneezing into a tissue and disposing of it immediately, using a separate bathroom if one is available.

The employee when calling NHS 111 should be advised to give the operator the following details: their symptoms; the name of any country they’ve returned from in the past fortnight.

Uncertainty over the seriousness of the virus, the exact nature of the symptoms and concern about the situation regarding issues such as sick pay may lead to some employees coming to work despite having contracted the virus, without necessary feeling unwell.

If this does happen, then an employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team and they will discuss the details and outline any precautions which should be taken.

If an employee is off sick with the virus then the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as it is with any other illness. However, the employee is now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of work, not the fourth.

The government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate then they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them or contractual sick pay if this is offered by the employer.

In some cases, employees may be able to work from home while in self-isolation. However, in many cases, if an employee cannot attend their place of work, they will be unable to work.

Some employees may also be reluctant to come into work due to general concerns about the virus, particularly if they belong to a group at higher risk of complications, so you should offer flexible solutions if possible.

Ultimately, there is no obligation on an employer to allow an employee to stay away from work and, if the non-attendance causes issues or extends beyond an emergency precaution, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action.

Employers must also take steps to ensure that no members of staff, customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.

It may be appropriate to remind staff that jokes and banter, even if light-hearted, may easily slip over the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.

Employers can avoid liability if they can show they took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent employees behaving in such a manner.

Taking reasonable steps can include having well publicised diversity and harassment policies and training all staff on the issue. Managers must also be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviour.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has also encouraged people to work from home where possible, as another effective social distancing measure. For this reason, employers should be taking steps to protect their workforce, ensuring the official advice and guidance is made available during a period of uncertainty.