Thames Valley: Dealing with coronavirus in the workplace

Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Abingdon-based Crossland Employment Solicitors, outlines what employers should consider.

The UK is now in the delay phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more people than ever expected to work from home should they need to self-isolate or have caring duties.

The Government continues to introduce various measures to address this public health crisis and last week announced a Budget COVID-19 support package to help those affected.

Here we take a look at the latest advice for local businesses, employees, contractors and workers during this difficult and worrying time.

Crossland Employment Solicitors

Sick pay

Prior to the Budget, the Government announced that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) would be paid temporarily from the first day of sickness absence (rather than the fourth day) for employees with COVID-19, or those who have to self-isolate.

The Budget extended SSP to employees caring for those within the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate.

A temporary amendment to the medical evidence/fit note rules means those advised to self-isolate will now be able to obtain a notification via NHS 111 (rather than from a GP) as evidence for absence from work.

To support employers the government will also refund eligible SSP costs and any expenditure for employees who have claimed SSP as a result of COVID-19 – this will be limited to two weeks per employee, and only for businesses with fewer than 250 employees as of 28th February 2020.

The government is looking to work with employers to set up a repayment mechanism for businesses as soon as possible. Meanwhile, employers should maintain records of staff absences, but do not require employees to provide a GP fit note.

For those who don’t qualify for SSP such as workers and the self-employed and those earning less than the lower earnings limit, then the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will be payable for people directly affected by COVID-19, or self-isolating from the first day of sickness.

People will be able to claim Universal Credit and access advance payments where they are directly affected by COVID-19 (or self-isolating), without the current requirement to attend a jobcentre.

For the duration of the outbreak, the requirements of the minimum income floor in Universal Credit will be temporarily relaxed for those directly affected by COVID-19 or self-isolating according to government advice.

School closure

Employees with caring duties, for example, if a child’s school is closed, will also need to take time off. Employees are allowed to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off work to take ‘necessary’ action to deal with particular situations affecting dependants, as well as a statutory right to unpaid leave. However, they must inform their employer as soon as reasonably practicable of the reason for their absence.

Staff welfare

Where an employee doesn’t want to attend work because they’re scared or anxious about the effects of COVID-19, there is no legal obligation to pay the employee. However, other considerations may apply, especially in the case of staff who have underlying health conditions, or are for example pregnant.

Consider their concerns, especially in light of your obligation to provide a safe working environment. Consider whether they can work from home or take paid/unpaid leave. Anxiety caused by COVID-19 may in fact render some employees unfit for work and therefore entitled to pay.

Home working

Employers remain bound under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workforce when working from home. Ensure that a risk assessment is carried out on employees’ home office to check they have the correct equipment from chair to desk and laptop – this can be done by them using a simple checklist. The last thing you want is an employee unable to return to work due to an injury.

It’s certainly unprecedented times for both businesses and staff in the Thames Valley, but by supporting employees and ensuring companies and individuals are aware of their rights and financial entitlements, the hope is businesses and workers will be able to ride through the storm and come out safely the other side.