Coronavirus and the workplace: Seven key questions answered

Covid-19 | Covid-19 Advice | Healthcare | International | Reports

Advice by Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula

Coronavirus is continuing to dominate the headlines, recently a hotel in Tenerife with British tourists was put in lockdown after a visiting Italian doctor tested positive for the flu-like illness, also known as Covid-19.

Employers are already feeling the knock-on effects, with City businesses sending staff home, bans on business travel as well as companies hastily referring to sickness policies to ensure they’ll be ok in the event the situation worsens. Considering this, here are seven key questions about coronavirus and the workplace answered.

Can I cancel an employee’s annual leave if I know they are going to an area with a high number of Coronavirus cases?

The law does allow employers to cancel annual leave that has already been authorised as long as you give the minimum required notice, but you should proceed with caution here. Cancelling leave which has already been approved, in any situation, is not likely to go down well with the employee and will often lead to a loss of money for them. If you proceed with cancellation, consider offering compensation for the employee’s financial loss. But there may also be a discrimination risk here. For example, cancelling all leave to countries such as China may have a disproportionate impact on Chinese employees who are using their holiday to visit family.

Do I have to allow employees to cancel their booked period of annual leave if they cannot travel abroad as planned?

No, there is no requirement for you to do this. If you have specific rules on allowing employees to cancel their leave, you should stick to these but, in the circumstances, you may decide to be more flexible and allow cancellation.

As a deterrent to travel, can I deduct pay from employees who insist on going on holiday to an affected location?

It is highly likely that this type of deduction will be deemed an unlawful deduction from wages and so it is not advisable to proceed in this way.

I have an employee who was on holiday in a Coronavirus affected area and now can’t get home because their flight has been cancelled. What should I do?

You can expect that the employee will try to identify other methods of getting back home. If for whatever reason, they cannot travel back, there are several ways in which you can deal with this:

  • use their annual leave to cover the absence. The length of their absence and their remaining entitlement to annual leave will dictate the extent to which you can do this. Using annual leave like this will have to be agreed with the employee unless you take the step of enforcing annual leave on the employee, meaning you need to give them notice that you require them to take annual leave that is twice as long as the time you require them to take. For example, a week’s leave will need two weeks’ notice. The uncertainty around the length of their absence may make this tricky;
  • agree for the employee to work from the location they are stranded in if the nature of their job allows for this, and they have the equipment they need to fulfil their duties. The employee cannot insist that they work from that location if it is not tenable;
  • agree that the employee uses banked time off in lieu. It is not likely that the employee would have enough lieu time to cover an extended absence;
  • agree a period of paid leave that is not annual leave;
  • agree a period of unpaid leave;
  • agree on any other type of leave permitted by the contract that may be appropriate.

A mixture of the above can be used to cover an extended absence.

One of my employees has recently come back from holiday and told me that they were informed during the flight that there was a suspected case of Coronavirus on the aeroplane. What should I do?

It is best to take precautionary measures seen as your employee has potentially been in contact with someone who has the virus. A period of suspension (paid unless the contract says otherwise) is advisable.

My employee has told me they have family members due to visit from China next month. I am worried that their risk of infection will increase. What can I do?

Provided there are no travel restrictions in place preventing the visit; there is little you can do to stop this happening. Ensure the employee knows what to do if they begin to feel ill during or after the visit. Suspension of the employee would probably not be appropriate in this scenario unless you know or suspect that one of the family members has the virus, but this will be your decision.

We regularly receive packages that have been sent from China. The staff in my post room are concerned about exposure to the virus and are refusing to touch them. What can I do?

There is currently no evidence that Coronavirus can be carried in packages that have originated in China and so no grounds for your employees to refuse to deal with any that are received. To allay their fears, you could consider providing gloves which will be thrown away after each use and encourage good hand hygiene.

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