Coronavirus Catch 22

As employers face the very real prospect of having to make decisions on preserving productivity and face the impact of significant employee absence, we consider the impact of coronavirus on UK employers.

Whilst the threat that coronavirus may become a pandemic takes precedence in the global news headlines, stories have started creeping into the press showing major employers closing their offices and sending staff home. Some schools have also taken the decision to send pupils home, including those attended by Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

This outbreak, the media inducing panic and continuing spread have the potential for serious implications for businesses, particularly those with globe-trotting employees or those relying on foreign supply chains, China being a significant supplier of UK industries.

Chevron, Crossrail and OMD have been reported as sending staff home. JCB are reported to be reducing employees working hours and suspending overtime.

Impact on Business

Employees coming back from affected areas may be quarantined for up to 14 days. In such circumstances whilst an employee may well be ‘fit for work’ potentially showing little to no symptoms, clearly a compulsory quarantine is something out of their control.

Technically an employer may not have to pay an employee that doesn’t present for work and doesn’t provide a sick note. Whether quarantine centres are providing fit notes is not confirmed.

However, our advice at this time would be to at the very least pay SSP to employees who have been quarantined. Failure to do so in the circumstances could be a breach of trust and confidence and land you with a constructive dismissal claim.

If an employee has not been quarantined but is showing symptoms and presents for work, if you as an employer are concerned about coronavirus and its spread, in the absence of a fit note to state otherwise your options are limited in respect of what you can do with your employee.

Medical suspension, pending occupational health review would likely be the lowest risk option, the employee being entitled to full pay and you can be satisfied with the occupational health review that you can get some clarity on their medical situation.

If your supply chains are suffering or the global issues are impacting your ability to produce/trade, lay off or even temporary closure may become a reality for a period. Employers should check contracts to ensure that they have the contractual ability to lay off and check whether there is a contractual entitlement to pay.

Consider contacting customers to discuss the issue and seek agreement to amend timescales for delivery of items or projects, to relieve the pressure on your business should you be in the position where you are having to send employees home or are struggling with supply chain

In the absence of a lay off clause, staff will need to be paid as normal to avoid breach of contract claims.

If your organisation doesn’t have lay off clauses, you should consider consultation with your workforce to agree temporary changes to mitigate the impact to the business and safeguard jobs in the long term.

Consider other flexible working options such as working from home as other means of mitigating the impact of lay off.

Employer Duties

As an employer you have a duty of care to your employees. If work trips abroad put employees at the risk of infection you need to consider a risk assessment and whether the trip can be justified (bearing in mind that an employee could be quarantined on their return).

Video conferencing facilities may mitigate the impact of this, and given the global nature of the virus, businesses around the world are likely to be accommodating in this respect.

Staff should be fully informed on infection control, reminded of basic hygiene regarding washing their hands with hot water and soap and encouraged to use tissues and sanitizers. Ensure the workplace is regularly cleaned and any flu like symptoms are addressed immediately.

Given there is significant government guidance in relation to the virus you should ensure that your business is not encouraging employees to act contrary to current advice.

Consider the strategies you need in place to manage your suppliers, production line and customers and mitigate those impacts where you can. Whilst paying an employee to stay away from the workplace may seem like a painful step, allowing them to come in and infect the rest of your workforce could have catastrophic effects.

Whilst an employer may face difficulties both financially and administratively during this bewildering time, employees’ health and well-being is paramount. It will be necessary to strike the balance between providing a safe working environment, protecting health and wellbeing and ensuring operations and businesses continue to run smoothly.

It is imperative that employers have robust employment contracts and the necessary procedures and policies in place which will facilitate the smooth running of the business and diminish any risk of a potential breach of contract or unfair dismissal claim.

If you require advice on any of the issues raised above or would like assistance in drafting or amending your employment contracts, policies and procedures, call our team on 01745 357369

For urgent assistance email