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Coronavirus and your workforce: key questions for HR teams

The rapid spread of coronavirus is equally rapidly becoming an HR issue.

We look at five knotty questions on dealing with the impact of the coronavirus on your workforce. 

Do I have to pay employees for absences linked to the virus?

This depends on why the employees are absent.

If they are unwell with coronavirus, then your normal sick pay policies and procedures will apply.

If you inform employees that they must stay away from work as a general ‘precaution’ then those employees should be paid their normal salary. Although the government is currently encouraging businesses and schools to remain open and operational. Read the most recent government guidance on coronavirus for schools and employers.

If employees ask to stay away from work because they are generally concerned about coronavirus, then they could be offered

  • home working
  • holiday; or
  • unpaid leave.

But what happens if employees are required to self-quarantine?

Employees who have visited the ‘high risk areas’ identified in government advice must stay at home and self-quarantine for 14 days. Updated Acas guidance on coronavirus suggests that employees who have been advised to self-isolate should be  paid sick pay. The government has stated that it expects employees who are required to self-quarantine to be paid sick pay. As a special measure, the government has announced that it will bring in emergency legislation allowing employees to receive statutory sick pay from day one of their absence; rather than on the fourth day of absence, under usual statutory sick pay rules. At the time of writing, this legislation is not yet in force.

Note, however, that treating self-isolation absence as sickness may trigger allegations of unfairness, given that employees would be using up their sick pay entitlement when they are not unwell. Employers should therefore exercise caution before using coronavirus related absence to trigger warnings under absence management policies.

Unpaid leave is not recommended because it may deter employees from staying in quarantine and put the rest of your workforce at risk, (see below for more on your health and safety obligations).  The wording of contractual sick pay entitlement may not cover a situation where an employee is off work but still well.  Therefore, best practice suggests that self-quarantine be treated as a form of paid suspension. If this approach is adopted, then it would be prudent to clearly communicate that the situation will be kept under review. This is a rapidly changing situation and you may wish to protect your position if matters escalate significantly. 

How do you prevent potential abuse of this situation?

There are no hard and fast rules. However, it should be clearly communicated to employees that they are expected to avoid high risk areas.

Employers might consider temporarily changing holiday request and approval procedures.  You may wish to require employees to disclose whether they will visit a high risk area.  If that is their intention, you may wish to reserve the right to refuse the holiday request.

Employees may also be informed that deliberately visiting a high risk area, in order to take advantage of additional paid leave, will mean:

  • they will not be paid for any resulting absence; and
  • may amount to misconduct, dealt with under normal disciplinary procedures.   

What are my health and safety obligations towards employees who are unaffected by coronavirus?

Your normal duty of care and duty to protect the health and safety of employees will apply. As such, you should follow WHO guidance, the Acas guidance (above) on infection control and government guidance for employers.

You will need to decide on, and communicate, a policy for ensuring that people who have visited high risk areas are kept off site.  This not only applies to employees, but also to other people with whom your staff might come into contact, such as suppliers, contractors and customers.

The situation is evolving day-by-day, so keep a close eye on developments and ensure that you are responding accordingly.

What if employees refuse to undertake travel for work because they are worried about contracting coronavirus?

For travel to high risk areas this is straightforward. Your approach should follow government advice. Employees should not be required to travel on business if this would conflict with government advice.

However, a grey area arises if an employee is concerned about travel more generally – for example, to any large city, or visiting a country which neighbours a country which is identified as high risk but which is not high risk itself.

In these circumstances, you should take a case by case approach. Any unreasonable refusal to travel for work should be treated in the same way as a refusal to comply with any other reasonable management instruction. But before doing so, consider alternative options, such as postponing the trip or arranging remote working.

Contributor: Sarah Maddock 

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at March 2020. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions

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