As COVID-19, the so called ‘Coronavirus’, continues to cause disruption across the country, many businesses are unsure of exactly how to best support their employees, while also continuing to deliver business services.
With the impact of the virus on businesses only set to increase, and predictions that up to a fifth of the UK workforce could be affected, it is vital for businesses to have access to expert, up to date advice on how to best balance supporting employees with continuing to operate as an organisation.
Supporting your employees
All employers have a general duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by its business (such as customers, suppliers and visitors).
During the current situation with COVID-19, this duty of care should include implementing processes and protocols to help reduce the spread of infection, as well as to support employees who may be diagnosed with the virus.
These measures should include:
- Ensure employees understand that the business either has or is in the process of putting together a business continuity plan, which will include regular and clear updates to staff on what to do if, for example, the office has to close
- Issuing clear guidance to employees on what to do if they, or someone they know, has been exposed to the virus and provide advice for self-isolation at home
- Carry out a risk assessment to identify any particularly vulnerable members of staff, and update employees’ emergency contact details as appropriate
- Provide adequate facilities to wash hands with soap and hot water and easy-to-access hand sanitisers and offer guidance on best practice in terms of hygiene
- Ensure all staff understand current absence procedures e.g. around sickness reporting and sick pay and what to do in the event that someone in the workplace develops the virus.
- Revisit policies around business travel and external meetings and consider advising against all non essential travel, as well as postponing internal and external events
- Make sure remote working policies and procedures are up to date and that all staff are able to work from home at short notice if the office does need to close
In response to the virus, the Government has introduced some changes to sick pay and sickness processes in the workplace.
- Right to pay: Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will now be from day one of absence, rather than day four, under emergency legislation which is not yet in force but is expected to be put before Parliament this week.
Under the circumstances, also consider waiving the normal requirement to produce a sickness certificate after seven days.
- Self-isolation: if an employee is advised to self isolate under medical advice (currently this is for 14 days if returning from high risk areas or if you have been in contact with someone with the virus, or for seven days if you have a new cough or a fever), and they are well enough to work remotely then they are entitled to normal pay.
If an employee self isolates in accordance with public health guidance but is unable to work from home, they will be entitled to SSP under new legislation which came into force on 13 March 2020.
If an employee self isolates as they are uncomfortable about attending the office and they cannot work remotely then they would not be entitled to SSP or usual pay and would need to take annual leave or unpaid leave.
- Absence to look after family members: It was announced in the budget that SSP would be payable to employees caring for those within the same household who are showing COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self isolate.
However, if they are absent to look after children because schools are shut, then this would not amount to sickness absence. But employees do have the right to take reasonable time off to care for a dependent, which is unpaid.
The Government announced in the Budget that the cost of SSP for Coronavirus-related absence will be covered for businesses with fewer than 250 employees.
For businesses who pay more than SSP for sickness absence, whether any of the above scenarios qualify for company sick pay would depend upon the terms of the employment contract or relevant policy.
Remote working considerations
Remote working can work well in a variety of situations, and will be particularly useful if offices do need to close or people need to self isolate but are not unwell. However, there are a number of issues around working from home which need to be considered carefully.
- Security: it is important that businesses are mindful of the fact that working from personal laptops or mobile devices increases the risk of a data breach. Businesses need to consider putting systems or software in place to mitigate these risks
- Data Protection: similarly, data protection is more of a concern when working remotely and businesses may risk falling foul of GDPR. The Information Commission recommends auditing the types of personal data being processed and the devices used to access that data; denying or restricting access to sensitive data on devices which lack a high level of encryption; and controlling access to data and/or devices using passwords or PIN codes
It also suggests that businesses should have remote locate and wipe facilities in place to maintain the confidentiality of data in the event of loss or theft and should, where possible, avoid the use of public cloud-based sharing and public backup services if the services have not been fully assessed
- Licences: businesses should review all software licences to make sure they have adequate provision to cover all staff working remotely should the need arise and that the terms of their licences allow for remote working.
Ideally, all of these considerations should be addressed in a comprehensive remote working policy, which is clearly communicated to all employees.
These are times of unprecedented uncertainty, but with careful planning, the right advice and good communication, businesses can help to balance their obligations to employees with their need to continue operations.