Business Leader recently sat down with Bob Cordran, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney’s London office in its labor and employment practice. He has been advising companies in the UK this week that are trying to figure out how to best handle the situation. Since this is an issue that impacts industries across sectors he says there are some things employers should be doing right now to try and stay ahead of the outbreak.
What is the biggest challenge facing UK businesses right now?
The biggest challenge facing UK employers in the face of the coronavirus is balancing the need to protect their workforce from an uncertain threat while continuing as far as possible with business as normal while the situation develops.
What can they do in the short-term?
Employers should have procedures in place to protect employees’ health and safety, which could include ensuring there are facilities for hand-washing, and providing hand sanitiser, tissues and wipes for cleaning work equipment. What is appropriate will vary depending on the workplace.
Where travel is planned to affected areas, it should be considered whether it is absolutely necessary. Where employees can work from home, this may be encouraged or even required if there are building closures or, in the future, restrictions on movement, school closures, etc.
This makes it important for employers to have suitable procedures in place for homeworking including ensuring that the tech is in place to allow it to work smoothly. Employers should also make sure that there are clear procedures for reporting sickness and sick pay.
How is coronavirus going to impact sick pay?
One issue that is getting a lot of attention is whether employers should pay employees who are self-isolating. There is a real concern that if employees fear that they will not be paid, they will go to work even if they are unwell and/or might be infectious.
The positive message here is that the government has said that statutory sick pay (SSP) is payable if the NHS 111 service or a doctor has advised self-isolation and the Health Secretary has indicated that it would be payable for anyone self-isolating for medical reasons – although there is some doubt as to whether this is strictly always the case.
What are the government doing about it?
Even where an employee is ill, SSP is usually only paid after three days of unpaid sickness absence. Again, this could be an incentive not to stay away from work when ill so it is positive that the Government has today announced that statutory sick pay will be paid from the first day of sickness absence, rather than the fourth day (as is usually the case) to close this gap.
The Prime Minister said in the House of Commons today that those who self-isolate should not be ‘penalised for doing the right thing’.
However, an employee needs to earn £118 a week to qualify for SSP, so many low-paid and/or part-time employees and some on ‘zero hours’ contracts where there is no guarantee of work do not qualify. The Labour party has asked for such employees also to be covered.
What should companies do if employees want to self-isolate?
It is worth noting that SSP is relatively modest (up to £94.25 a week, which is less than a fifth of average weekly gross pay). Many employers pay full salary for a period of sickness absence under their contracts of employment with their staff.
Clearly, contractual sick pay will apply if an employee is off work because they have Covid-19 but this is not necessarily the case for self-isolating employees. It would surely be good practice to pay normal sick pay to any self-isolators.
What is next?
Disruption to working life is currently limited but if more draconian measures are put in place, such as school shutdowns, this will likely raise urgent childcare issues for employees with children, many of whom will want to work from home for childcare reasons.
This may require some flexibility since homeworking arrangements often stipulate that the employee is not caring for children – particularly young ones – while working from home.