Coronavirus

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26 February 2020

Over the last few days I have received several queries about how to manage the risks posed by the Coronavirus as an employer. I thought it might be useful to provide a short guide with a few FAQs. 

As at 26 February 2020 the number of cases of Coronavirus across the world reached 81,264, resulting in 2,770 deaths and there are now discussions about a pandemic being declared. 

As an employer Coronavirus poses a number of risks, irrespective of whether or not you require your staff to travel globally with work. We are fast approaching holiday season, which for many of your employees may mean travel, including to heavily affected areas such as Northern Italy. The risk of travel is not just that your employees may contract the illness but that they may become stranded if there are further lockdowns in hotels or resorts. Even if your employees choose not to travel there is a very real risk that Coronvirus will spread and the WHO has said that the world must prepare for a pandemic. If the virus becomes a pandemic it could lead to wider disruptions with suppliers and customers and to shortages of fuel and other basic commodities. There may also be disruptions to public transport.

There are a number of steps that you should take now to protect you, your employees and your business:

1. Be informed:

Make sure that you are aware of where the risks are in the world so that you can manage risks of business travel overseas, supply chain issues or employees travelling. The government updates the following website daily at 2pm: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-information-for-the-public

2. Treat infection control as part of your health and safety plan

This will only require small steps (similar to the steps being taken now in schools), such as making sure that you have adequate hand washing facilities (and perhaps a couple of posters to remind people about the importance of handwashing – get in touch if you need a poster). Consider providing hand gels in large work areas and tissues. Make sure that there is regular cleaning with adequate anti bacterial. Often these small obvious sounding steps are overlooked because people assume that these things are happening, always check that they are.

If you have field workers (particularly sales staff or business development) consider any options to limit travel by using technology (for example through skype meetings).

3. Make a Plan:

Consider what the threats might be to your business and put together a plan. Develop a contingency plan: Every organisation will need to assess its own level of exposure to business disruption caused by the virus.  We don’t need to get too doomsday about a plan but it is definitely worth considering some of the more likely potential implications of Coronavirus (hopefully some of the FAQs below will help with this part). 

Think about all of your stakeholders when you make your plan, for example:

1. Customers – are any of my customers likely to be impacted in their own business? Any located in heavily impacted areas? Is this likely to impact my order book? What are my existing deadlines? Any time related penalties? Check contracts and discuss with customers where they are and how you will keep in communication to avoid issues arising.

2. Suppliers  – are you sourcing from any affected areas? Do existing suppliers have contingency plans? Do you need to seek alternative back up supply chains to meet your existing contractual commitments?

3. Workforce – do you issue a statement about work related travel? What is your policy if somebody gets stuck abroad? Is there anybody for whom additional precautions are required (for example as a result of an underlying condition? )Are there any travel plans for people with key skills? What is the back up for key roles? Maximising remote working, infrastructure?

4. Creditors – how will you meet any ongoing financial obligations if you have to reduce output by 50%? Do you have insurance in place? Check with your insurance company what levels you have in place and any triggers for it to kick in. 

I have been working with clients over the last few weeks to put together some planning, if you need some support on this topic get in touch [here

4. Communicate with your workforce

There are lots of reasons to communicate with your workforce: first and foremost your plan will only be useful if everybody involved knows how it will work and what part they must plat. In addition everybody will know what to expect to help them make informed decisions (i.e. do I take the risk of a holiday abroad and being stuck in quarantine, would I be paid? Would I lose my job? etc); they may be worrying themselves about the risk of contracting the Coronavirus and/or they may be concerned by all of these reports in the media about economic downturn impacting upon their ability to keep a job.

Communication can be fairly informal, I would recommend a letter so that employees can digest what you are telling them (I have prepared one for retainer clients) backed up with a brief meeting. It is worth having a simple planning document that one person owns so that you can track any risk, who you’ve spoken to and what steps you have taken to manage any risk.

There is a lot to consider in this advice but the practical steps proposed should not take too much resource. If you require any further advice or template documents to support you please get in touch.

Kind regards,

Emma McKessy

07891 332 334

emma@hremploymentlaw.co.uk

FAQs

Can I force my employees to cancel any planned trips abroad?

No. Your employees have a right to a private life, when dealing with any risk you must take a reasonable and proportionate response to the situation. You may highlight to employees the facts of a situation (such as what will happen in the event that they get stranded abroad) but you must be careful not in a way that could be construed as intimidating or threatening, that could be said to undermine the trust and confidence in your employment contract with the employee (and so give rise to a potential constructive dismissal claim).

May I require my employees that I believe pose a risk to wear face masks?

The advice from the NHS is that there is no evidence of face masks preventing contagion of a virus and there is no reason to believe that there would be a reasonable requirement for them in a normal working environment. If your working environment poses a particular risk you may consider the introduction of face masks but remember that your actions need to be reasonable and proportionate to any perceived risk.

If you do intend to introduce new rules into the workplace to prevent the spread of infection (including additional PPE) you must make sure that you apply those rules equally to all employees (irrespective of sex, race, age, nationality etc). 

What should I do if somebody comes to work with the Coronavirus?

Contact Public Health England via https://www.gov.uk/guidance/contacts-phe-health-protection-teams

Can I suspend an employee that I suspect to be suffering from Coronavirus?

Yes, if you grounds to believe that they pose a risk to your workforce. You should remember that your decision should be a reasonable and proportionate response to any risk (so for example if you have a lone worker, there should be no reason to suspend). You should only suspend if you have clear objective evidence of a risk (for example your employee has travelled from an area listed by the government as one from which travellers should self isolate). There have been some ridiculous stories in the press about people being targeted because of their nationality, this would of course be race discrimination. If you are going to require an employee to stay away from work, always be evidence led.

If you do suspend an employee you will need to pay them full pay unless you have a clear right not to pay them under the terms of their contract, this will only apply in very limited circumstances. The government, ACAS, CIPD etc are pushing heavily for employers to make full payment to any employee suspended because of the coronavirus, suggesting that there is a moral responsibility. If you are going to suspend without pay make sure that you are legally able to do so (or take advice from me) otherwise you could find yourself facing a claim for unlawful deductions or even constructive dismissal.

Suspending somebody with key skills on full pay will obviously impact service delivery and your overheads, so is the least favourable outcome for you. The best way to avoid ending up in a situation where you need to suspend on full pay would be to prepare for a situation where your employee may be affected by coronavirus and communicate how you will deal with it in advance. I have prepared a template letter for retainer clients, if you would like a copy please get in touch.

If I need to close my business must I pay my employees?

The starting point is check your contract. Unless you have a contractual right to send your employees home without pay you will need to pay them in full for the time that they are away from work. If you have lay off or short time working arrangements, you may want to implement them. If you don’t have up to date contracts or you need support (advice/template letters) on short time working or lay off, get in touch.

You will want to minimise the amount of non value added payments that you make through utilising any agreements on holiday/unpaid absences/flexible working etc. This is where your contingency planning comes in: by taking a few steps now to make sure that you are in a position to operate as close to business as usual as possible. 

Make sure that contact data (email, work telephone, personal telephone and address) is held for your workforce (not just employees) and reviewed and updated on at least an annual basis to account for the common regular change in personnel and personal data, this will allow you to pull in resource quickly where needed. 

  • asking staff who have work laptops or mobile phones to take them home so they can work from home
  • arranging paperwork tasks that can be done at home for staff who do not work on computers
  • making sure staff have a way to communicate with the employer and other people they work with

 Can I require my workforce to work overtime to deal with unplanned absences?

Again, your starting point when it comes to requiring employees to work overtime is communication: explain the impact of failing to meet customer requirements and what you need from the team. If you are being met with resistance look to your employment contracts and see if there is a requirement to work the hours required. You may need to take a more formal approach and remind employees that you are giving a reasonable instruction.  

If you do need to request more of a smaller group of employees remember your health and safety obligations such as Working Time Regulations (particularly for younger workers). Also, it is important to ensure that appropriate training is given to any remaining workers who may be required to carry out unfamiliar tasks. You may need to review risk assessments and apply any necessary control measures to maintain quality/take account of the reduced workforce and the remaining pool of skills available to maintain your business. 

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