Coronavirus in the workplace

We are currently receiving a large volume of calls from clients seeking advice on how to deal with staffing issues arising from Coronavirus. Whilst it should be noted that advice is being reviewed by the Government on a daily basis there are certain principles that should apply regardless.

On a basic level, employers have a duty to provide a safe place of work for employees. To counteract the potential effects of Covid-19 the following practical steps should be taken to ensure the workplace is as safe as possible from infection:

  • Provide adequate hand sanitiser and tissues for all staff.
  • Ensure there are places for staff to their wash hands with hot water and soap.
  • Make sure that all staff members contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date.
  • Consider whether any work-related travel plans to affected areas are essential.
  • Ensure managers know how to spot symptoms of Coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes for example, sickness reporting.
  • If an employee contracts the virus the employer should identify the people who have been in direct contact with the employee, contact the Public Health Authority and carry out a risk assessment.

There are few common questions that employers are raising. We have set some of those questions out below:


What entitlement to sick pay will our employees have?

If someone has Coronavirus or develops symptoms, they will be unfit for work. The workplace’s usual contractual sick leave and pay entitlements apply. If there is no contractual or occupational sick pay entitlement, then statutory sick pay (SSP) will apply.

The government has stated that if someone has been advised by a healthcare professional to self-isolate, even if they don’t have the virus, they should receive SSP – providing they meet the qualifying criteria.

The government has also confirmed that the first three days of absence relating to Coronavirus will be paid under emergency SSP provisions. In addition, employers with less than 250 employees will be able to reclaim the first 14 days of SSP payments made to each employee where absence is related to Coronavirus. The detail of how such claims are to be made will follow.


What about fitness to work certificates?

When requesting a fitness to work certificate from the affected employee, employers should be flexible as the employee may not be able to provide one if they have been told to self-isolate.


What happens if we tell an employee not to come in?

If an employee is not sick but their employer tells them not to come to work (for example where someone has returned from an effected area), they should get their normal pay. This is because the absence is at the employer’s request and is not sickness absence.


What if an employee needs time off work to look after someone with Coronavirus?

Employees are entitled to time off work to care for someone who is a dependent in an unexpected event or emergency. This entitlement could apply to situations relating to Coronavirus.

Whilst there is no statutory right to pay for this time off some employers might offer to pay depending on the workplace policy.


What if an employee does not want to go to work?

Some employees may be afraid of getting Coronavirus and do not want to go to work. If there are genuine concerns, then the employer may try to make reasonable adjustments for the employee.

In addition, the employee might be able to arrange with their employer to take time off work as unpaid or annual leave. However, the employer does not have to agree to this and there is no obligation to pay an employee where the employee refuses to attend work.


What if we decide to close the office down for a period of time?

If employees are able to work from home when there is an office closure, they should continue to receive normal pay.

Where the employer is not able to provide work and has a contractual right to enforce lay-offs or short time working without pay it may invoke those provisions. Otherwise if an office is closed the employer is obliged to pay its employees – subject to any process of collective consultation or negotiation on this issue.