In these unprecedented times, the situation is constantly changing. Employers have a lot to deal with – increasing staff absence, potentially a significant downturn in business (or surge in certain industries) and now, with schools closing, there will be issues with some employees needing assistance with childcare issues. What can employers do?
Reduce risk and have a policy in place
As an employer, you have responsibility for providing a safe place of work. Employers need to consider what steps to take to help protect the health and safety of everyone during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Employers need to encourage social distancing and think how best to adapt working practices to deal with current situation. As the situation is constantly changing, practices put in place will need to be regularly reviewed.
ACAS recommends that it is good practice for employers to:
- keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace
- make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date
- consider extra precautions for staff who might be more vulnerable, for example if someone is pregnant, aged 70 or over, or has a long-term health condition
- make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace shows symptoms of the virus
- make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly
- provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them
- consider if any travel or meetings are necessary and if meetings can be held remotely instead
- keep up to date with the latest government coronavirus advice on GOV.UK
The situation is constantly changing, but it is a good idea to have a policy in place so that employees know what is expected of them. This will need to be regularly reviewed and amended as advice changes.
Check what support is available
The government has announced a number of measures to support small businesses. These include:
- Business interruption loans
- Grants for those in retail, hospitality and leisure sectors
- Rates relief for those in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors
- Delays to payment of tax
- Reimbursement of SSP for 14 days for employers with fewer than 250 employees.
Information is limited at this stage, but some information about loans is available through the British Business Bank and HMRC has a dedicated Corona virus telephone number if you need to delay payments: 0800 0159 559.
Dealing with staff sickness
The NHS website has advice about the situation in which staff should stay at home. Under new government measures, small employers (those with fewer than 250 employees as at 28th February 2020) are able to reclaim 14 days SSP per eligible employee. The 3 waiting days are waived, and so SSP is payable from day one. This cover includes those who are required to stay off work to self-isolate. People who are advised to self-isolate for COVID-19 will soon be able to obtain an alternative to the fit note to cover this by contacting NHS 111, rather than visiting a doctor. Further details about how to reclaim this will be available shortly, but in the meantime employers should maintain records of staff absence.
Where possible, employees are encouraged to work from home and employers should ensure that they have appropriate systems in place to deal with this, such as lap-tops, mobiles and remote access. The pressure on mobile networks has increased, so it may be that employees will need to work at other times, or, if possible, do paper-based activities at peak times. Where home-working is not a viable option, then employers may need to consider other possibilities, such as working different hours to avoid busy commuter times, or additional parking to allow staff to drive to work (although this is often not a realistic possibility).
Employers may also want to consider encouraging staff to cover other roles, e.g. to provide cover for staff who are off sick or to ensure essential services only are provided. This may mean that staff need additional training or access to different systems.
Now that schools and nurseries are closing, employers will need to consider how to support employees with childcare responsibilities. Employees are entitled to Dependants Leave to deal with an emergency to deal with dependants, including children. This time off is unpaid and is for a “reasonable” amount of time to deal with the emergency. Usually it would be for a day or two to make alternative arrangements, but obviously these are unprecedented times.
Options for employees include that they may be able to work from home (although working while looking after children is not always easy, depending on the age of the children) or work flexibly (catching up with work in the evening or at other times when another family member may be available to assist with childcare). Employees may wish to take unpaid leave or could apply for parental leave (which is also unpaid), use annual leave or use a combination of these.
There are no easy answers about how to deal with the situation and employers are encouraged to discuss alternative arrangements with their employees to see if there may be other alternative arrangements possible.
Dealing with a downturn in work
Many employers will be dealing with a significant downturn in work, which impacts on their ability to pay salaries. This means that employers may need to consider options in relation to staff costs. Now is the time to think laterally – there may be a downturn in your business, but your services could be adapted to support others in this difficult time. For example, many restaurants are now offering take-away and delivery options to support those in self-isolation.
As a first step, employers are encouraged to look at what government support is available to them (see above) – loans and grants may be available to assist employers to maintain employment. The situation is fluid, so new initiatives may be introduced.
However, if you are having difficulty and are potentially unable to pay salaries, you are encouraged to consult with staff. Employees may be willing to work part time, take unpaid leave or annual leave or cover other jobs during this time. They may also have suggestions about how the business can adapt to support the current situation
Legally you can force an employee to take annual leave, but you must give them notice of twice the length of the leave that you want them to take. So if you want them to take 3 days leave, you must give then 6 days’ notice. This may not be very helpful if the situation changes suddenly and staff may not have much annual leave to take. It is better to consult with employees and gain their agreement on the best approach.
If, and only if, you have a lay off or short-time working (LOST) clause in your contracts, then you do have the option to temporarily lay-off or reduce the hours of affected employees. A lay-off happens when you are unable to provide work for an individual for a period of time when they are available for work. It cannot be offered to someone who is, for example, off sick – you have to pay them sick leave. You have to inform the individual that you have no work for them and ask them not to attend. However, it is best practice to consult with staff before implementing such an initiative. Short time working occurs when an employee is asked to work fewer hours than normal and receive less than half a week’s pay. Employers should be aware that if an employee has more than 2 years’ continuous services and they are placed on LOST for 4 continuous weeks or are on LOST for 6 or more weeks within a period of 13 weeks, then they could be entitled to claim statutory redundancy pay if they follow the correct procedure. While on LOST, the government provides a very limited statutory guarantee payment.
As a last resort, employers can make employees redundant. Employers must follow the correct procedure and redundancy pay will be payable.
Ultimately, the best option is to consult with staff and ask then for their ideas. It could be that some might be happy to take unpaid leave or work part time for a period.
The situation is constantly changing – so ensure that you review government websites for the latest information.
Communication with employees is key including consultation on alternative working practices to support the business and individual’s personal circumstances.
The above advice is generic based on current information. Do get in touch if you require specific advice.